Setting Fire

Setting Fire 04: Buck

“She lives in the freaking White House!” exclaimed Lexi as the beat-up old pickup truck rounded the final curve of the Berkshire Estate’s obnoxiously long driveway. Her dad parked under a columned awning where, Lexi assumed, a valet was supposed to jump up and whisk vehicles out of sight.

“It’s not the White House,” he grunted, but even he was leaning over and giving the house a dubious frown. The Georgian home was one of the many buildings in Silent Pines that were protected as heritage sites by the Historical Society. In every history class that Lexi had ever shared with Margrit, the girl never failed to talk about her dumb mansion and boast about her connection with the founding families of the town. The Polks were a founding family too, but Lexi never heard anyone bringing that up.

Probably because the Berkshires owned practically everything in Silent Pines.

Lexi slid lower in her seat. “Why couldn’t Knucker be here? He’s the one that drove her car.”

Jacob let out a restrained hiss of air and gave his only child a look.

“He’s got dinner with his Nana. Believe me, the two of you will be doing anything that girl asks until that damn party of hers is over and done with. Because if that dragon she calls her mother calls me up one more time threatening a lawsuit, I’m going to let George haul your ass to jail and leave you there until you’re eighteen. Got it?”

Her mouth pursed like she’d bitten into a lemon. Lexi almost blurted out that going to jail would be better—and safer—than this, but she had a feeling that this time it wasn’t an idle threat. She nodded instead.

A sharp rap on the window made her jolt in her seat. Margrit peered in through the dirty glass, giving them one of her dumb fake smiles. Lexi shoved open the door so fast she nearly hit the girl with it, a little disappointed when Margrit hopped out of the way.

“Evening Mr. Ryan. You’re right on time. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble driving Lexi all the way across town. I’m afraid my car is still at the shop getting detailed.” When Lexi’s dad wasn’t looking, Margrit squinted sideways at Lexi with a sneer.

“Not a problem. Let Mrs. Berkshire know I appreciate how obliging she’s been.” Oh, nope. He’d seen that. That subtle bite in his tone was typically reserved for those really obnoxious customers at the shop—and was making Lexi really curious as to what exactly Mrs. Berkshire had said on the phone.

He didn’t stick around long enough for her to find out. After reminding Lexi when he’d be there to pick her up, he gave the girls a curt goodbye. Margrit waved him off until the truck was out of sight.

It was like a switch flipped the moment she knew Lexi’s dad was gone. With her arms splayed straight down at her sides, almost like one of those creepy mannequins in a horror film, Margrit slowly turned on the balls of her feet towards her prey. Her glossy, painted smile was so perfect that a sudden zing of terror struck Lexi. She almost bolted to chase her dad down the street, but her feet were glued in place.

“I’m almost sad the troll couldn’t make it too. We’re going to have so much fun tonight.” Margrit beckoned Lexi toward the house. “Follow me, servant.”

Mute and more than a little wary, Lexi followed Margrit inside.

It was like stepping onto another planet. The first thing she saw was a giant staircase that looked even wider than Lexi’s house. As a matter of fact, Lexi’s whole house and then some could have fit snugly in that front room. She found herself spinning in a circle trying to take it all in.

“Ahem,” Margrit cleared her throat. The other girl seemed to enjoy Lexi’s staring; Lexi quickly wiped the bewildered look off her face and scowled.

“What did you want me to do here?” she asked, though her real question was more along the lines of How are you going to kill me today?

“This way.” Margrit led her into another room—though the only way Lexi could tell was by the change from white marble floor to parquet wood tile—that might’ve seemed like a normal living room, had it not been absolutely huge. There were not just one, but three sectional sets. Who needed that many couches?!

“I should thank you, really. Because I so valiantly lent my car to help save a poor soul’s life, Mother is letting me take the lead in organizing one of her very important charity events. Soon this parlor will be transformed into a beautiful ballroom. We’re even getting the antique chandelier out of storage.”

Lexi didn’t register half of what she was saying, finding herself way more transfixed by a freaking bear. An actual real-life bear, standing up on its hind legs and flashing its pearly white teeth. When she reached out to touch it, she found the fur coarse and a little stiff. Something like this definitely could’ve taken a whole chunk out of her shoulder and then some. The shape was different, though. This thing wouldn’t have been able to chase her through the woods so deftly with its big round body.

“Oh my god, could you stop bonding with your boyfriend for two minutes? This is actually important!” Margrit shouted. When Lexi spun back around, she found Margrit holding a bucket of cleaning supplies and an apron. “As I was saying, it all needs to be dusted and cleaned before the movers can pack and set everything up.”

“What’s the apron for?” Lexi wanted to know.

“The apron is for fun.”

Fun for who? wondered Lexi, just as the apron hit her in the face. The bucket of supplies was shoved unceremoniously into her hands.

“After that, you’re going to wash and fold all of the party linens. Most of them will be fine in the machine.” Margrit wrinkled her nose. “Although I am not sure you’ve ever actually used a washing machine before, judging by those clothes.”

“I’ve done laundry before,” muttered Lexi.

“Of course you have,” Margrit chimed sweetly. “Hop to it, then.”

As soon as Margrit was out of sight, Lexi tossed the apron across the room. To be fair, it could have been worse. Lexi had been torturing herself imagining all the different ways Margrit was going make her life a living hell. Dusting a ginormous room and doing some laundry was pretty low on the list. Even better, Margrit wasn’t going to be on her heels being snotty the whole time.

Lexi pulled a feather duster out of the supply bucket and got to work. She probably spent more time playing with the thing than she did actually dusting, though. As she made her way around the room, she was finding precious little actual grime but lots of interesting little trinkets. From shined bronze bowls to crystal vases, little fancy eggs with secret compartments, letter openers fashioned like ceremonial knives used for human sacrifice… There were even huge scowling paintings of the Berkshires. One in particular looked a lot like Margrit, right down to the curly red hair, and Lexi might’ve assumed it was her if not for a little note card in the corner that read Georgia.

Lexi was digging through a jar filled with smooth pebbles and old coins when she nearly had a heart attack.


A thick curtain on the wall moved, and a demon with the ugliest face Lexi had ever seen jumped out and grabbed her by the arm. She shrieked, jerking backwards right into a table. Lexi caught the large marbled blue vase before it went tumbling, but unfortunately she missed its smaller companion. The metal urn rolled off the table and crashed to the floor. Dust spilled everywhere.

“Oh no, not Great-Grandpa again,” lamented the demon.

It took Lexi a second to realize the scary face was actually a mask on a little girl. When she pulled it off, there was a mess of curly red hair and a tiny wide-eyed face grimacing at the pile of dust on the floor. She couldn’t be more than five or six, Lexi reckoned, but she currently had more pressing issues.

Oh shit. That was a person’s ashes? Who kept their dead ancestors in jars?!

“Crap! Fuck! Damn!” exclaimed Lexi, scrambling for her bucket of supplies and digging around for something she could use to scoop up Great-Grandpa. She found a tiny dustpan and a little broom at the bottom of the bucket.

The little girl was no help at all. She just stood there rocking on her heels.

“It’s okay, he always ends up on the floor. Scotty says as long as you make sure his teeth get back in there, no one will notice.”

Scotty must’ve been Scott Berkshire, Margrit’s older brother. Which meant this midget must’ve been her little sister. Lexi hadn’t known Margrit even had a sister.

“You can’t tell anybody,” Lexi told the girl, getting as much of Great-Grandpa into the urn as she could. She tried not to shudder and think too much about all the chunky solid bits that clanked against the urn’s sides when she dumped the ashes back into it. Gross. There was still a little bit of him on the carpet, but the broom couldn’t get it up. A dust-buster was the next thing out of the bucket. “Especially not Margrit!”

“Whacha gonna give me?”


“Whacha gonna give me to keep quiet! Margie gives me chocolate truffles and Scotty gives me dollars.”

Lexi had to think about this. First of all, Margie? Were she not in loads of trouble already, that would’ve been the highlight of her day. Second, Lexi didn’t exactly have much to give. It’s not like she carried candy around to bribe annoying little kids with, and the few bucks she had in her pocket were her lunch money for the next week.

“Look, I don’t ha—”


Lexi grabbed the kid and covered her mouth with her hand, waiting with bated breath for Margrit’s heeled footsteps to echo through the house. When nothing but silence followed, Lexi let out a sigh. Behind her palm, the monster giggled.

“Okay, okay. Here.” Releasing the kid, Lexi dug into her front pocket to pull out her money. She intended to only hand over a dollar, but the second she had cash in hand, the girl snatched the whole folded wad and took off running out of the room.

No wonder the Berkshires were rich. They were a bunch of blackmailing thieves.

Once the evidence of Great-Grandpa’s fall was erased, Lexi figured it was best to seclude herself in the laundry room. Thanks to Margrit’s complete lack of a tour, she had to stumble through a hundred doors before she found the one housing the laundry. Unlike the dank corner in her own basement where the washer and dryer made their home, the Berkshires practically had an entire laundromat. Lexi supposed when you had a house big enough to hold two thousand families, you needed a professional facility for washing their clothes, too.

After getting the first cycle in the wash, Lexi made herself comfortable on top of the machine with the book Mr. Anderson gave her. There wasn’t much else to do unless she wanted to go defile more of Margrit’s cremated ancestors.

She was a little dubious about it for the first few pages; classic books were more a Knucker thing. Though she liked to read, it was usually in the form of comic books, manga, sci-fi, and fantasy—basically anything with cool pictures or zombies. Call of the Wild was about a dog named Buck, who so far was having a pretty shit life, and somehow Lexi found herself relating to Buck and all the crap he had to deal with. Before she knew it, she was sucked in.

A while later, Lexi was right in the middle of a sled-dog fight to the death and grimacing. This book was kind of brutal. Make it about teenage girls and Lexi figured it’d be pretty realistic.

“You’re here to do chores, not get off with my appliances,” commented Margrit, causing Lexi to start and jump off the washer. Margrit snatched the book from her hands in the process, giving the cover and insert a surprised appraisal. “This is expensive, where did you get this? Your dad isn’t going to pleased finding out you’re a thief, too.”

That was hilarious, considering Margrit’s little sister had just stolen Lexi’s lunch money. Lexi huffed, lunging forward to snatch the book back.

“Mr. Anderson let me borrow it. Give it back!”

Margrit stepped backwards, holding it aloft and just behind her.

“Does he know your track record with expensive things? I’d be surprised if he gets this back in one piece.”

Lexi’s face turned a bit red, but she made another grab for the book. Shoving Margrit’s dumb head in the dryer seemed like a good idea right about then. “How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? It’s not like I WANTED to almost die in your stupid car!”

Margrit continued to back up and dodge, finally tossing the book behind Lexi, where it landed safely and unharmed on top of the dryer. She looked smug, pressing her hands against the doorway as she hovered.

“Maybe when you’re actually sorry for being such a horrible waste of everyone’s time and energy, I might grace you with my forgiveness. But that would require you to get your head out of Knucker Polk’s ass long enough to, I don’t know, do something other than brood and stare moodily into the abyss.”

For a split second, everything went a bright, bright red. Her strangled silence must’ve been the reply Margrit was after because Lexi could hear the girl laughing as she left down the hall.

Why did Margrit always have to be such a bitch about everything? Who gave her the right to act like she was the Queen of Silent Pines? Lexi hissed under her breath, pressing the heels of her palms to her temples where her pulse was beating so hard she could feel it throbbing against her skull. What did Lexi ever do to earn this much shit from one girl? She bet the girl wouldn’t be so snarky all the time if she punched Margrit right in her freckled nose. Or pulled her arms until they made that satisfying crunching pop noise when they got jerked out of the sockets. She sure wouldn’t be able to talk if Lexi sank her teeth into Margrit’s throat. Lexi could even taste the iron tang of her blood—

Alarm rushed through her, twisting her gut into knots when she realized she was tasting actual blood. Lexi wiped her hand across her mouth quickly, finding only the tiniest bit of red. The crazy part was when something sharp nicked her palm. She pressed her tongue gingerly against her teeth and sucked in a breath at finding them impossibly sharp.

Her back hit the wall behind her and Lexi slid all the way down to the floor. She was just so fucking mad. Mad enough to see red, mad enough to think about murdering her own classmate. She could feel it coursing through the veins under her skin, making her muscles twitch and her breath stagger.

Stop. STOP.

Squeezing her eyes shut and throwing her arms up over her head, she pleaded with herself to calm down. Lexi took in deep stilling breaths as she counted the seconds until that manic feeling passed. Until the sharpness faded and her heart simmered down to a steady rhythm.

Something was wrong with her. At that moment she knew it had to be something truly terrible. This couldn’t be rabies.

This was something worse.

That night, Lexi’s dreams were a mess of dogs. Lexi was Buck, hijacked out of her own home and now trying to survive in the wild.

Soft earth and brittle pine needles beat underneath her paws. The wind blew through her fur as she leaped over fences and darted between rows of old trees, charging farther and farther into the dark foggy forest. Everything around her felt so vibrant and alive. Her ears twitched and swiveled at the faint snores of animals sleeping in their burrows. Night creatures skittered under shrubs or along the tall branches of the trees. An owl hooted a complaint when she bounced off the trunk of its tree to pounce a fat juicy possum. It fell over playing dead and Lexi nudged it with her nose. It wasn’t any fun if it wouldn’t let her chase it.

She circled around a tree only to catch something fuzzy flashing at the corner of her eye. Lexi chased it, finding herself spinning in dizzy circles before she realized she was after her own tail.

Then she paused stock still. A scratching and scrabbling had captured her attention. Ears swiveling again, she took a few creeping steps through the underbrush to follow the sound. Even with nothing but pale moonlight, Lexi could still see the critter’s striped face and the wiggly paws fussing with what looked like a discarded candy bar. Wild raccoons were surprisingly huge!

This one wasn’t going to get away.

Fast as lighting, Lexi charged. She could feel the force of the movement in her very bones. Quick, powerful electricity. She was on top of the raccoon before it even knew what hit it. With a chomp of her teeth she had its head locked in her jaws, flooding her mouth with the warm, coppery taste of blood. After a violent shake of her head, she dropped the dead raccoon and licked her teeth. Fresh raccoon tasted a hell of a lot better than her dad’s poor excuse for a pot roast.

A sudden howl in the distance made Lexi freeze, the fur on her back sticking straight up. She could smell it in the wind… something strange. Something wrong. The howls were a warning; Lexi wasn’t supposed to be there. There was something dangerous out there. And it was close.

It broke the tree line within moments, a great lumbering shadow, huge and bristling with pitch black fur. He was a more monstrous avatar of Spitz, just like in her book. Only a beast instead of a dog. Too large for a wolf, too small for a bear. The moment it locked eyes with her, its ears went flat against its skull. It smelled like pine and wet dog and a musk that registered in her mind as male. And then, lurking beneath that, that scent of wrongness that sent her gums peeling back from her teeth.

Its tail was sticking out straight behind it like a ramrod, and as it scented the air in her direction, it gave one sharp wag. It had scented her kill, was already padding slowly forward as if this were its territory and not hers.

Lexi’s ears went back and her stance shifted, her head lowering as she snarled a warning. That’s mine. Shooting up her spine was a mix of fear and thrill. This strange thing was a familiar nightmare, one that only a week ago would have sent her screaming and running through the woods like… like dinner. Ready to chew her up all over again. But Lexi wasn’t a scared girl anymore.

The monster was big. But Lexi was bigger.

Lexi bounced forward, all snapping jowls and growls and pure blood-burning adrenaline. He launched to meet her, weaving to bring his fore-paws down on top of her body and try to bear her to the ground with his full and considerable weight. She could feel his teeth catching in the fur at the ruff of her neck and the side of her muzzle, hot spittle flying as he snarled and thrashed. Caught off-guard, Lexi came crashing down into the messy scarlet smears left by her own kill on the forest floor.

The monster’s paw slipped in a slick patch, and the pair went rolling. Everything went fuzzy for a split second in the way that dreams were apt to do. All her senses were upside-down and sideways. She was rolling upside-down and sideways in a wriggling fury of slamming paws and ripping fur. Lexi had gotten a mouthful of the stuff and she wasn’t sure if it had been from the tail end or the neck.

Why was she always ending up like this? Even in dreams she was forever getting shoved around. Lexi was done with being a chew toy.

Somewhere in the shuffle she bucked him off, though it was such a blur that she didn’t know quite how she’d managed it. Not that it mattered, because she was so absolutely furious all she could see was angry red. Her fur fluffed out on end, Lexi knew, because she could feel it raising all along her back and around her neck.

Baring her teeth again, this time there was no growling warning before she charged. There was a high shrieking yelp from the black beast in answer, and Lexi felt something sharp catch at her chest and drag downward.

“STOP!” a deep voice bellowed.

The sound echoed through the trees and reverberated in Lexi’s very bones. Her paws dug in and ears went flat instantly, and suddenly she was aware of a wet burning in her chest. Something in her spine rippled and then twisted with a crack so loud that a guttural scream tore its way out of her throat.

She went hot, white hot all over. She felt like a piece of wax that was held too close to a flame, her skin slipping and sliding with a series of pops like stray gunshots. Before she knew it, Lexi was boneless on the forest floor in a crumpled heap.

Naked. Vulnerable. Human. And painfully awake.

The searing sensation was fading, but she could still feel something stinging on her chest. Her palms braced against the bloody earth, her wild hair hanging in a curtain around her face, she watched a drop of crimson splash inside the larger puddle beneath her. Her mouth was foul with a murky, metallic tang.

She slowly became aware of a scrabbling beside her, another body sitting up.

“Oh god,” a boy’s voice croaked. “Shit—”

“No. No, no, no,” she croaked. Her throat and voice were as raw as the rest of her body. It felt like her skin was no longer attached to muscle, just sliding around where it pleased.

This was a dream. Go back to being a dream.

But it wasn’t. Everything was as sharp as a pinprick, thousands of needles stabbing their way down from her head to her toes. Lexi stared at her shaking, bloody hands before wiping the back of one against her mouth, only to succeed in smearing blood and fur across her face. She brought her other hand to her chest where a curtain of red covered so much of her skin she couldn’t tell if there was a line of gashes or if a hole had been ripped into her rib cage.

What did she do? Since when did rabies turn people into dogs?!

What the ff—” She choked on another sobbing scream.

“Alexa!” the same deep voice came again, this time more of a rumble than a boom of thunder. Closer now. Someone was wrapping something around her shoulders, rough denim that smelled like pine and her dad’s aftershave. It was a man’s jacket, oversized even on her. Large hands gripped her forearms tight.

“Dylan, how bad is it?”

“Not that bad,” the other voice answered, wavering. “It’s just a graze, I was only trying to stop her. It’s just the shift

“I know,” the deeper voice snapped. Then, lower and more gently, “Alexa. Listen to me. You’re okay.”

“No!” she shouted again. The fight or flight instinct was in full gear, but Lexi couldn’t seem to will her body to move. She felt like burned macaroni, all scorched and mushy. Swinging a fist was what she wanted to do, yet all she could accomplish was balling up her hands and bending forward, hoping to God that wasn’t her guts spilled all over the forest floor.

Something about his voice registered as familiar in the back of her mind. Holy shit. Was it creepy woods dude? She was out in the woods naked, chomping on animals and getting into fights with demons and here was this dude again?!

“Get away from me!” Lexi hissed through her teeth. She tried to scramble out of his grip, ignoring her noodle arms in an effort to slap herself free.

“I will when you’re calm,” he said firmly. “Look at me.”

Lexi lifted her head.

He was kneeling on the ground in front of her, the knee of his jeans getting slowly stained in the pooling blood and guts of the dead raccoon. His eyebrows were drawn together, lips pressed thin, and his tawny skin was slick with sweat around the collar of his t-shirt. He seemed to grow inexplicably bigger the longer Lexi looked at him. He wasn’t even on his feet, but she felt as though he was looming, filling up all the blank spaces in the forest. Had he been like this the other day? It was the most intense feeling. Just meeting his eye made it a little hard to breathe.

“Listen.” His voice was so gravelly and rough and fathomless that she would have thought he was much older than she was, had he not looked so young. Something in that tone made her really want to listen to him. “My name’s Caleb.”

He looked sort of familiar, and Lexi remembered what he’d said the other day: His sister had told him about her. Given his coloring, it wouldn’t be a shocker if this was that Silvia Whelan chick’s older brother. Even if she’d never met two people so unalike in size and personality. This must have been Whelan property.

The jacket draped over her must have been his, too. It occurred to her that it smelled like him, which was weird as fuck. It was also bulky enough that she could easily pull it around herself and mostly be covered. Getting a little more blood on it wouldn’t make a difference; it was already ruined.

“You’re using Sith Lord mind tricks on me!” Lexi squeezed her eyes closed, but that didn’t seem to shut out her present nightmare or that looming presence the guy had. It was so strong she almost forgot all about the other dude that was there.

Never in her life had she been so trapped in a contradictory wish of wanting Knucker to be around, but at the same time being glad he was nowhere in sight. The taste of salty iron was still in her mouth. Even being naked wasn’t as traumatizing as the thought that she could’ve been chewing on him instead of a fat raccoon and

“Just… fuck,” she cursed, finally just shoving her arms into the jacket and pulling it tight around her. Her bloody fingers fumbled through the line of buttons until she had some sense of covered modesty. What she should’ve been doing was punching this guy in the neck and taking off into the woods. But somehow she got the feeling he wasn’t like those assholes in town. It was more than just his words; Lexi guessed if his sister was nice, surely he had to be too.

Didn’t mean she wouldn’t bolt the second it sounded like a good idea.

“What the hell is going on?!”

“I should probably” began the other kid. He was peering over Caleb’s shoulder, a bit red-faced, his dark hair sticking up in all directions. He didn’t appear to be wearing a shirt.

“Go home, Dylan,” Caleb interrupted. His mouth twisted downward.

“Yessir.” Dylan jumped to his feet. Lexi got an eyeful of the dude’s naked ass as he jogged off into the trees.

A man of his word, Caleb released Lexi’s arms, though he kept his hands hovering close nearby. Like he thought she might fall over again.

“Can you stand?” he asked quietly. “I live nearby. You can get cleaned up and then I’ll take you home, or you can call your dad


Oh god, no. There was no way in hell her dad was going to believe her. He didn’t believe something had tried to eat her in the woods, so why the fuck would he believe that she was sleep-eating wild animals and fighting dogs in the woods? He’d think she just snuck off with Knucker again to raid another party and get drunk, then tripped and smashed her face or something. That would at least be something believable.

It occurred to her then that there were no other dogs in sight. Instead of a monster, it was just the other boy dashing off and disappearing. She wasn’t the only one with weird rabies. What the fuck.

Lexi scrambled to her feet, surprised that she didn’t teeter as much as she was expecting. Everything had hurt twice as much as when she’d been bitten the night of the bonfire. To be fair, she had been pretty numb from the booze. But she was also pretty sure the black beast from her dream-that-wasn’t-a-dream had slashed her up pretty good. She should’ve been bleeding out by now.

Caleb rose when she did. His broad shoulders were coiled tight, muscles tensing, bloody hands still at the ready to catch her. Lexi couldn’t help staring. If he wanted to, he could probably pick her up and throw her like a rag doll. His jeans were patchy with dark stains, and he was stepping in something Lexi would rather not think about. Between the two of them, they looked like they’d just committed a murder.

She guessed he couldn’t be much more than twenty, but he was huge. And tall. Not the tallest guy she’d ever met, but damn close to it. Lexi bet he’d probably played football in high school.

“I can’t tell my dad about this,” she went on with a little less panic. “Whatever the hell this is, alright. I justI want to know what it is and however many rabies shots I need to get.”

“It’s not rabies,” he told her, Adam’s apple working in his throat. “Alexa…”

Lexi visibly cringed.

“Lexi. It’s just Lexi,” she muttered. No one ever called her Alexa, except for her dad, usually when he was yelling at her. Or Margrit, who enjoyed being a real pain in the ass.

That swallow of his wasn’t comforting. Aside from the volume of his voice, nothing in his stony face seemed to change. It was like he was a statue, from head to toe, and it freaked it her out a little. But that swallow, that definitely meant something bad.

She balled up her fists and stood straighter.

“What is it? Just tell me. It’s some incurable disease and I’m going to die and then turn into a zombie, right? Except more like the dog version, so…Aw fuck.”

It was only then that Lexi realized that despite being in the thick of the woods, so dark that the sun couldn’t possibly be in the sky above them, she could see clear as day. Every twig, every scattered pine needle underfoot, every leaf in the branches above their heads. The wind picked up, tugging at Lexi’s borrowed jacket, and her nose was suddenly going nuts too. She could smell pine and damp earth and chickens, and something else closer and musky and strange that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. In the distance, she could hear a rooster crow.

There went that ice cold panic again. Lexi tensed up ready to bolt. This wasn’t real. None of this could be for real.

Now he was frowning.

“Lexi,” he corrected. “You’re not going to die. But no, there isn’t a cure. Just… You’re not alone in this, either. You’re not crazy.”

Telling her she wasn’t crazy didn’t mean anything. It was a lie. One big huge never-ending clusterfuck where it all just kept getting worse and worse. You told people they weren’t crazy before you took them to an asylum, or a weird government hospital where they dissected you and pulled out all your guts to see how you worked. There were thousands of books and TV shows about it!

He took another slow step toward her, hands still raised like he was approaching some kind of wild animal.

“No,” she said again. Then, before he could grab her, she darted for the trees.

If he called out to her, Lexi didn’t hear it. She just ran like the devil was on her heels, faster than she had ever run, enough that her vision blurred and everything that passed her looked blended together. She told herself it was just because she lost so much blood and that it couldn’t possibly be the nightmare that was taking over her body. Nothing was wrong with her and it was all going to go away.

She hadn’t known where she was running to until the generic brick home of the Polks came into view. Some common sense must’ve still existed in her brain somewhere, because she paused at the front door before she made the mistake of knocking. If the Sheriff saw her like this…!

Quickly she darted around the side of the house until she found Knucker’s bedroom window. Sneaking into each other’s rooms was nothing newthey’d done it enough times as little kids. Lexi jiggled the ancient frame until the lock slipped loose, then pushed the window open. In seconds she had climbed inside and made a beeline for the disheveled bed. All the blood and gore was forgotten as she crawled onto the mattress and shook at Knucker’s sleeping form.

“Knucker! Knucker wake up! This is bad, it’s really bad!”

When he heard the soft rattle of his window opening, Knucker thought it was a dream.

Lexi shaking his shoulder and whispering his name was something he’d dreamed about before, but it was also something that had happened in actual waking life, and so he cracked his eyes open to blink blearily in her direction. The dim light of early dawn was just beginning to crawl into his bedroom, but it was still dark enough that he couldn’t make out much more than Lexi’s silhouette leaning over him.

Then he noticed the smell.

“Lexi?” he stammered, nose wrinkling, “What

He struggled up onto his elbows. Their noses were practically touching, just by sheer accident, but something on her breath or on her clothes smelled like sweaty batteriesand that wasn’t particularly Knucker’s dream. This must have been the real deal, and suddenly his heart squeezed painfully tight in his chest.

“Lex,” he said again, reaching up to tuck her windblown hair behind her ear. Fuck. She was shaking. “What happened?”

Damn, she was so glad to see him. Knucker was real and solid and dependable. But when she looked down to see blood-spattered denim and her bare knees, her last hope that everything had just been part of a lucid dream shattered. The dirt, grime, and gore were still there. The whole world was different now and not in the way she wanted it to be.

“I killed something,” she whispered first. Lexi drew her hands up to her mouth, wincing with the motion and looking for a second like she was going to throw up. Her whisper rose to a croaking shout. “I ate it!”

“I’m a wolf, Knucker! A freaking wolf!”

“Shhh!” he hissed frantically, his palm plastering over her mouth. Was she crazy?! For a long and horrifying moment, his biggest worry was that his dad would hear Lexi and wake up and catch them in here like this and think God knew what.

Then her actual words sank in.

“…Y-yeah,” he tripped over his answer, feeling a wash of cold as the blood drained from his face. “Yeah, I kind of figured.”

Setting Fire

Setting Fire 03: The Girl in the Steelers Cap

A little girl with long brown hair stood in the middle of a field.


“Alex!” she cried, spinning in a circle. The sound startled a murder of crows nearby, their black wings beating as they took flight and scattered. Shrieking, the girl clapped her hands over her ears. “Alex, please, where are you? I’m scared!”

Behind her, tall dark shapes loomed like reaching giants. It took a moment to place that they were transmission towers. Power lines stretched out across an overcast sky and straight on into forever.

Lexi looked down at her hands. They were… weird. Too large. Covered in what looked like blood.

When she lifted her eyes again to the road in front of her, she spied something up ahead. Something blue, abandoned on the wayside. Her phone? She’d been looking for her phone, hadn’t she? She padded forward.

She was going too fast. So fast that she couldn’t stop, her feet gaining seemingly endless momentum even as she dug in her heels. She skidded right past her target, tumbling down to the dirt path in a pile of gangly limbs. Her arms flopped out to either side of her and braced for impact. One of her hands fell on something soft.

Lexi picked it up.

It was a child’s denim headband.

“Alex!” Up ahead, something large darted across the gap between the dark trunks of the pine trees. “Alex! Don’t leave me! Alex!

“Alexa. Alexa.

Lexi’s head suddenly hit the mattress when her pillow disappeared out from under her. Before she could utter out a complaint, that same pillow ploomfed against her head.

“Your alarm has been going off for thirty minutes, you’re going to be late for school at this rate,” complained her Dad. Jacob Ryan didn’t stand around waiting for her to get up either. He just hit her again with the pillow to make double-sure she was awake, then strode out the door grumbling something cliche and OLD about back in his day under his breath.

She shifted to her elbows, pillow sliding away and onto the floor as she cast her ajar bedroom door a scowl. Lexi finally sat up, rubbing her face with both her hands to try and wipe away that bleary-eyed, groggy feeling.

The dream left her a little unsettled. It wasn’t particularly odd or even a nightmare, but it gave her that creepy off sensation. Subconsciously her hand rose up to rub her shoulder where that tingly feeling lingered the strongest.


“I’M UP!” she shouted back, throwing off her covers and dragging her feet to the bathroom. “So annoying.”

Her muttered complaint went unheard—but not the slamming of the bathroom door. That was hard enough to rattle the picture frames on the hallway wall. The funny part was that she didn’t actually MEAN to slam the door. Lexi cringed and waited with bated breath for her Dad to have a fit about it, and sighed with relief at the silence.

But her morning just kept getting weirder and more frustrating.

Lexi had a ritual every morning, just like most teenage girls did. Use the toilet; take a shower; brush her teeth; fuss with her make-up, hair, and clothes. Maybe hers drew the line at simple smokey eyeliner and making sure there weren’t any knots in her hair, but there was still a process. She had to shave her legs TWICE today. Somehow she didn’t do a good enough job the first time, is what she figured. Then she nearly stabbed herself with her own toenails, her TOENAILS, and in that process discovered hairy spots on her feet as well. Batches of fuzz were winding up everywhere. Apparently the universe had just decided she was old enough to inherit the Ryan family body hair gene and turn her into Bigfoot.

She had it all under control though. Lexi was clean, smooth and ready to put on her face as Knucker’s Nana loved to say.

The second she peered at herself in the mirror she shrieked.

Lexi pawed at her cheeks and chin. She had a beard. It wasn’t even a REAL beard. It was the kind of wiry, twisted patches of hair that fourteen-year-old boys had before they could actually grow a beard. She scrambled to fetch her razor out of her shower. The last thing Lexi needed was to go to school with even MORE fuel for the torment fires.

A fist pounded on the bathroom door.

“Alexa, for god’s sake, other people need to use the bathroom.”

“I’ll be done in a MINUTE! I’m having ISSUES.”

“You’ve had your period for five years now, Alexa, you know what to do by now!”


A second later Lexi swung open the door, clean shaven AGAIN and without a hint of facial hair. She glared at her dad, who peered back with a weary, unimpressed expression before he stepped past her into the bathroom.

Her battle continued in the kitchen, when the microwave decided it wanted to be a huge piece of shit and not register when she was pressing buttons. After the seventh try Lexi got so frustrated she smacked it with the heel of her hand. Normally a couple solid smacks and the thing would behave.

This time the top caved in and the door fell off.

Lexi was still blinking, dumbly at the fallen door when her Dad entered the kitchen. He didn’t say anything at first. Jacob was just as confused as his daughter at seeing the microwave dented at the door laying at her feet.

“Am I double-grounded?” Lexi blurted out, kicking herself after the fact. All she had to do was keep quiet, maybe he wouldn’t have thought of that!

Jacob let out a world-weary sigh. “You’re going to pick up some things for me after school.”

Lexi was totally okay with this, and made sure to keep her mouth shut through the rest of breakfast.

Outside of her issues in the morning, the rest of Lexi’s school day went without a hitch. IF she ignored Margrit giving her demonic looks during Calculus. Lexi was unfortunate enough to be trapped not just with Margrit and Owen, but also their frienemy Angela Mercy who thankfully wasn’t interested in helping Margrit torture the student body, but was still loud and intimidating. Being outnumbered and without Knucker, Lexi spent the last period of the day tucked away in a corner hiding under her book.

The second the bell rang, she was out of there. Normally she’d meet up with Knucker outside on the front steps, but they were officially grounded for the rest of the week. Maybe even the rest of their life. That meant Knucker was stuck getting picked up by Sheriff Dad and held hostage for ride-alongs, while Lexi was going to have to WALK to do all the errands her own dad put her up to today. As she glanced down at her feet, she second-guessed this whole dressing cool thing. After all the weird hairy problems, she opted for skinny jeans and a plaid button-up shirt that was actually fitted instead of looking like she grabbed some old flannel out of her dad’s closet. The shoes were the problem, though. Lexi was kind of digging the whole look country-punk look, but even with thick, chunky heels she was still getting used to walking in them.

Her whole sense of equilibrium had been off lately. Last thing she wanted was to fall on her ass just trying to WALK.

Turned out, she overthought the entire thing. Once she got going and quit dwelling on it, Lexi got lost in other kinds of thoughts. When dropping off some bills at the post office, she wondered how she’d get her homework done when she had track practice. Could she get Knucker to do it? He never did do her homework for her, even when she sulked. But maybe this time she had a good excuse. In the library while returning some books, she tried to figure out when her dad actually had time to read between working at the gas station and fixing cars. Did he do it just to meet women? When even was the last time her dad talked to a woman?

Her last stop was the downtown automotive shop where her dad always special-ordered parts. She passed the list over to the cashier, wrote down when they could be picked up, and then she was officially all done. Lexi stepped outside, glowering at the sky. How long did all that crap take? Fishing her phone out of her front pocket (which was apparently a huge pain in the ass with skinny jeans—why didn’t these things have deeper pockets?), she checked the time. Three hours were wasted walking around town for lame errands, when all of that could have been done in twenty minutes if Knucker drove her around.

Scoffing under her breath, she tilted her phone to thumb out that exact complaint to her friend as she took a turn towards home.

A low wolf-whistle interrupted her thoughts.

“Hey there, Red!” followed a young male voice. When Lexi tore her eyes away from her texting, she spotted its owner right away. He was tall and tan and had a broad, toothy grin and he was flanked by a quartet of his friends. They were Lexi’s age, but she was pretty sure they didn’t go to her school if only because they were actually talking to her. All five of them were wearing rich kid clothes. Just t-shirts and jeans, but you could tell those jeans cost three times as much as even Lexi’s nice new pair.

Lex figured these were St. Cyprian’s boys. Silent Pines wasn’t exactly a big town. There were only three schools offering 9-12 education—and obviously, Silent Pines High was where most kids went. But there was also the Koowahoke Charter School, built back in the 90’s when a group of Lenape Nation members had moved up from the Mountville area… and then there was St. Cyprian’s.

“You don’t look like a mechanic, sweetheart,” the boy told her as the group approached from a little ways down the sidewalk, fanning out around her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”

There he went again. Lexi was still convinced he wasn’t talking to her and even glanced around behind her to see if some other girl was nearby. All she saw was a bunch of rich dudes lurking about like they were some kind of gang. Of course SHE belonged there. Lexi probably knew more about cars than these dirtbags did. They all looked like they just walked about of an Abercrombie & Fitch or something. She wasn’t intimidated in the slightest.

“…Why are you talking to me?”

Okay, maybe she was the tiny bit irked by a sudden group of strangers. It wasn’t like school, where she at least knew and was familiar with everyone there, even if she didn’t know them on a personal basis. Lexi already met a couple new people this week. She was so not ready to try her hand at a bunch of random weirdos in expensive t-shirts.

“I’m actually leaving a place like this, so. Bye.” Maybe if she didn’t know they were going to do that same spiel all the guys in her Auto Mechanics class did about a girl and car stuff, she wouldn’t have had that slight bit of annoyance in her voice. She thumbed out another message to Knucker, this time about expensive jeans as she stepped to the side to squeeze between the dude and one of his friends.

“Hey whoa, whoa, Red. What’s your hurry?” the talkative one said as he caught Lexi’s arm. His grip was just a little too tight. “Don’t be shy. Come get a coffee with me and the guys.”

Even though the guy was tall, Lexi was taller in her heels. It was easy to forget she was such a beanpole when she only ever hung around with one person.

“Man, I think she thinks she’s too good for us or something,” one of the other boys chimed in. He was smaller, blond. He shoved his hands in his pockets and gave Lexi a cold stare.

“Nah, that’s not true, is it?” The tall one smiled wider at Lexi. “We’re making friends.”

“I HAVE a friend already,” she retorted, twisting her arm free and then rubbing the spot to get that skin-crawly feeling to go away. It’s not like she was weird about her space or anything, but there was a grand total of four people that ever actually touched her. This guy and his troll smile that was way too reminiscent of Margrit’s were definitely not on that list.

How much of a dork would she be if she took off running down the street? Everyone at her own school already knew she was a coward. It wouldn’t make much difference if she had a shitty reputation at another. Lexi just didn’t want to end up chucked into a dumpster and have a second pair of expensive new school clothes ruined.

“…Besides, I’m grounded. I have to get home,” she added quickly, because the blond one was starting to get all scowl-y like she’d insulted them. That was how things always played out right before she ended up in a locker or a toilet.

“Ohhh, she told you, Marcus,” laughed a boy wearing a dark green t-shirt. Lexi’s would-be friend—Marcus, evidently—flashed him a dark, steely look in answer.

“You’d better hurry home then, Red,” was all he said, however.

This time Lexi didn’t wait around to hear more. She backed up to continue on her way, making sure she kept any nearby trash cans in her sight just in case. What she didn’t think to keep an eye on were the boys.

She passed by the old grungy office building on the corner and continued on down the block. It was a brisk day, the chill wind harsh against her cheeks. She glanced up at the sky, watching a pinwheeling bird swoop in a slow circle past a cloud, and pulled out her phone again when it buzzed.

Midway through reading Knucker’s reply, Lexi heard voices and stopped to glance over her shoulder. The group of St. Cyprian’s boys had turned the corner and were walking towards her, laughing and shoving each other. Marcus caught her eye.

“Sure you haven’t changed your mind?” he called. “Looks like we’re all headed the same way.”

Lexi realized this might’ve been the first time in her life she was actually worried about being followed. Her dad was best friends with the Sheriff. Her own best friend was the Sheriff’s kid. They may have had trouble at school or whenever they had the misfortune of running in to Margrit elsewhere, but the rest of the time? Lexi couldn’t think of a single moment where anyone had actually approached them, followed them, menaced with a creepy van, or otherwise lurked around corners.

She also realized it was always “we” and “us” and never just her alone by herself. If she couldn’t walk down a stupid street without Knucker, how the hell was she supposed to survive when he left for college?

“Uuugh! Go walk down some other street, you jerkwads!” she shouted over her shoulder.

Then she did run. Only far enough to turn the corner around the nearest building, mostly because she nearly fell on her face when she did. Luckily, despite her overconfidence in running with heels, Lexi did have one advantage over a bunch of stuck-up rich boys. They didn’t know this side of town the way she did.

Ignoring her irrational fear of dumpsters, she darted past a couple to take a detour through the trucker’s parking lot of some store. Once she squeezed through the opening of a broken fence on the other side, she was right back where she was supposed to be: on the street heading home, hopefully with a few less idiots behind her.

She nearly stumbled on her heels right into a wall of Marcus. He grabbed her wrists to steady her and smiled.

“Careful, sweetheart.” He eyed her up and down, and Lexi could see his friends standing behind him a few feet away. Green Shirt and the fourth boy, who was thin and reedy and dressed in blue, were leering; the blond boy was staring dead at Lexi, cold and stone-faced. “You don’t look happy to see me! Don’t be like that.”

“Damn, she’s tall,” said Green Shirt. “Sure she’s not part pine tree?”

“Don’t mind Justin,” Marcus told Lexi. He was still holding her wrists. “Give me a smile.”

What did they do, run down the street to catch up with her? How freaking creepy was that! Lexi especially didn’t like that he was so deadpan serious. Like he actually expected her to. She’d thought a demonic red-head’s sanguine sweet threats had been terrifying, but for some reason this guy asking her to smile made her skin crawl.

This was dumb. Knucker was taller than this dude and she could wrestle him to the grass. Apparently putting on nice clothes and high heels turned her in to a baby!

“How about you all eat a dick,” she retorted in frustration. “Get off me!”

Lexi tried to shake her wrists free. Her bad case of rabies had to be wearing down, because none of that nice microwave-punching strength was helping her out today. When she couldn’t pull free she threw all her weight into shoving him.

It worked; he stumbled backward, fell, and landed on his elbows on the asphalt. Lexi had just enough time to feel smug about it before one of the other boys laughed and Marcus’s face went red.

“Fuck you, bitch!” he snapped, back on his feet in an instant, and then he was grabbing Lexi by her hair and hauling her towards the broken fence behind them. White-hot pain flashed across her scalp, followed by a sickening ripping sound. His arm pressed against her throat as he shoved her against the partially rotted wood and leaned in close enough that his nose poked hers. “You’re going to regret that.”

This wasn’t a busy street, Lexi remembered. It was a side street, little more than an alley, mainly used for thru-traffic; there were no storefronts facing them on this stretch of the road. She thought frantically to look around for help, but she was tunnel-visioning; all she could see was the trio of boys standing in a semicircle like waiting vultures. Waiting for what, exactly?

Her panicked gaze landed again on the boy with blond hair, and for a moment, Lexi swore that his cold, dead eyes had gone jet black.

“Now,” Marcus said again, “Tell me you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Lexi heard herself squeak.

“Good girl. Now—”

Get the fuck off of her!” a voice shouted from directly to Lexi’s left, and Lexi caught a flash of metal reflecting in the sun. There was a dull sound that reminded Lexi of a single, muffled knock as the tip of a baseball bat crashed down on Marcus’s shoulder. It fell useless to his side as he cried out and whirled towards his assailant.

The girl brandishing the bat at Marcus was even taller than Lexi. She wore a plaid shirt, ripped jeans, and scuffed combat boots; her long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Because the sun was behind her, Lexi couldn’t see her face. All she could see was the Pittsburgh Steelers logo on her baseball cap.

She shook the tip of the bat at Marcus.

“You chucklefucks are lucky it isn’t a gun!” she yelled. “Back off!”

Lexi couldn’t explain it. It all had to be psychological, because she sure as hell wasn’t sorry and she was more than happy to take it all back the second she wasn’t being pinned to a fence or being stared down by some guy’s roaming black contacts. She hadn’t thought his eyes were that dark, but they must’ve been.

Or maybe he had cracked her head against the old fence and that was her brain leaking out.

Her hand jumped up to her hair and she rubbed her fingers against her scalp to check for blood. At the very least Lexi knew he got a fist full of her hair. It was still burning where he pulled, but there were no signs of blood.

Lexi’s second instinct was to check her new clothes to make sure he hadn’t ripped anything, but she was suddenly finding herself a lot more brave when she wasn’t the only target in the lane.

“Yeah, get fucking lost!” she shouted, stooping to pick up a sizable chunk of broken brick. Lexi hurled it at the boys, and though it completely missed her new buddy Marcus, it might’ve done a nice bit of damage if the jerk behind him hadn’t dodged out of the way.

“Or I can call the Sheriff!”

That probably took away all of the badass points she might’ve earned, but for once, Lexi was glad Knucker’s dad was a cop.

Though Marcus fell back, clutching his arm, Green Shirt—Justin—made a grab for the girl’s bat. She dodged around his reaching hand, and his efforts were rewarded with a jab of the bat handle in his eye and a second blow to his gut.

“I will call the cops,” Lexi’s savior insisted, and something niggled in Lexi’s memory as she heard that light drawl come out. “Anyone else want to try somethin’?”

“We should go,” the blond boy said. When Lexi looked his way, she had to blink, because he’d come closer now and his eyes were a very pale blue. What she’d seen earlier must have been a trick of the light. “Marcus.”

“Yeah, okay.” Marcus shot Lexi an insincere, pained smile. “Didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”

The girl in the Steelers cap watched the boys’ retreating backs until they got to the end of the road, then turned toward Lexi and lowered her bat. Now that Lexi could see her face clearly, she realized why that voice had sounded familiar. It was the girl she’d promised a soda in the school showers the day before.

“Hey,” she said. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m cool,” Lexi spat back with a lot more anger than she actually intended, especially considering the girl just saved her ass. She wasn’t hurt, not really, but Lexi still found herself taking several pacing steps and trying to shake the sharp crawling feeling out of her arms. And her hands. Her hands were shaking. It took shoving them into her back pockets and then bending forward ever so slightly to keep them still and to actually be able to breathe and swallow at the same time.

This was worse than nearly getting eaten by a bearwolf in the woods. At least then no one saw her screaming and flailing like a dumbass. There was just the aftermath of gore and her hanging all over stupid Owen DeWhitt. Now she was having a very hard time meeting the eyes of a girl who was naked the first time they’d actually spoken.

Lexi heaved a heavy sigh.

“I’m—I’m good,” she muttered, finding that focusing all her annoyance on an empty fast food bag rolling by from the wind was helpful. “Sorry, I mean thanks. Thank you.”

Luckily, the other girl didn’t seem to be offended by Lexi’s rudeness. She was leaning on her bat, one hand in the pocket of her jeans, waiting patiently for Lexi to stop freaking out.

“No prob,” she answered. She lifted a hand to tug her cap’s brim down a few hairs, like she thought it might suddenly fall off. “You, uh… Do you need a ride or anything? I’ve got a bike.”

Yeah, Lexi could see that happening. Just hopping on the handlebars of some girl’s bicycle and trying to trek it all the way up and down the hills back to the gas station, where she would then have to explain why she lived behind a gas station. Even if this girl was crazy tall and could maybe see around Lexi, Lexi still knew from experience that she and bikes were a bad mix.

Except, she had been cursing her dad for making her walk around town. Not to mention having a repeat meeting with those boys out on the more country streets where there wasn’t going to be some bat-swinging football chick didn’t sound like a great idea. Those jerks were probably riding around in their spotless F-150s as if they ever actually needed a truck, and prowling the street looking for more trouble.

“Uh… well okay,” she responded, still dubious about the whole idea. “I’m not all that good with bikes though.”

The girl gave a strangled laugh. “It’s cool. I’ll give you the helmet.”

She stepped forward, hefting the bat up and over her shoulder, and stuck out a hand to Lexi. Her fingernails were clipped down to nubs, her palm calloused and smudged with dirt, but her fingers were long and slender and almost delicate-looking. Lexi could totally picture them wrapped around a football, easy. She bet the girl’s hand-span was huge.

“C’mon,” said Football Chick.

Wait what. Were they going to hold hands all the way to her bike—oh god, girls were weird—Oh, no. Right. Normal people shook hands or something when they first met. Lexi was officially stupid. She didn’t know this girl’s name, this was what you did.

Jesus Christ, Knucker was going to laugh at her for DAYS. Oh, he’d pretend like he wasn’t, but she’d see that dumb smile he’d try to suppress by biting his lip. Lexi bet he’d go all scatterbrained and forget how to be a person too if he almost died and some giant offered him a ride.

“Yeah I definitely need a helmet,” admitted Lexi amidst trying to pretend her face wasn’t going red from pure embarrassment at her own stupidness. It didn’t help that when she did take the girl’s hand, Lexi’s grip was a little too firm and her arm rigid. She was trying to remember what her dad said about the best handshakes and came off like a robot.

Then she made it worse. With finger guns.

“You lead the way, Shower Girl.” And worse still, apparently. There were good reasons why she didn’t talk to anyone but Knucker.

“…Kendall,” supplied the other girl, ducking her head for a moment and rocking on the heels of her boots. A piece of wispy chestnut-colored hair had fallen free of her ponytail; when she looked back up again, it was framing a face plastered with a lop-sided grin.

She didn’t wait around for Lexi to introduce herself in turn. Kendall had long legs that carried her quickly down the sidewalk, but thankfully Lexi didn’t have trouble keeping up. She carried the bat loosely at her side now that there weren’t any asshole boys to threaten.

“It’s just down the block,” she explained, pointing up ahead. “My bike, I mean. I was just about to hop on when I saw, well. You.”

Lexi didn’t see any bicycles on the sidewalk. There were a couple cars parked down the street, though, and there was…

Oh. Oh. That was a bike, yeah, but it wasn’t at all what Lexi had been picturing. Kendall’s bike was an old Indian Chief with a bright red paint job, straight out of the 1940’s. It wasn’t in top condition, but for a motorcycle that old to run it had to be well-cared-for, Lexi knew that much. Either Kendall knew something about something or she knew someone who knew something. Even if it wasn’t all original parts—which there was no way in hell that it was—there was going to be a lot of upkeep involved. Lexi’s auto shop class knowledge wouldn’t do her a lick of good if that thing broke down on her.

As they got closer, Kendall jogged ahead to open one of the black leather saddlebags hanging off the rear fender. She stuffed her baseball cap inside, then pulled out a helmet that matched the bike and held it out to Lexi.

Lexi took the helmet and stared at the thing as if she’d just been handed a live animal, then side-eyed the bike. Motorcycles were way different from bicycles. If she fell off of this she’d look as mangled as she did the other day.

But motorcycles were really fucking cool, though.

“I hope you broke that dick’s arm right off,” she exclaimed with all sincerity. Lexi tossed her hair to get it out of the way, making sure to tuck the auburn strands behind her ears before she shoved the thing on her head. Lexi kind of felt like she was wearing a fishbowl, but her eagerness to actually take a ride was drowning out all her concerns about looking like a dork. “…I think that might actually be worth a whole case of sodas.”

Kendall huffed with laughter and set to work strapping her bat to the back of the bike. When it was secured, she swung astride.

“Where to?” she asked, leaning an elbow on the handlebars. She looked as comfortable on that bike as if she’d been born sitting in the black leather seat. As tall as she was, she sort of looked like a model, sitting there like that. One who modeled motorcycles… except not at all like the girls on her dad’s magazines. Those girls definitely didn’t wear ratty old jeans and Timberland boots or have hat-hair.

Kendall didn’t even wear makeup—not even eyeliner.

“Sheriff’s office?” she suggested, her lips pursing. “You should report those guys.”

Lexi shook her head and grimaced.

“I should,” she agreed, “but the Sheriff is my dad’s best friend. I’m kind of already in trouble for some perfectly innocent party crashing and auto theft. If he has to call my dad about something else, I’ll be spending the rest of the year in my room sending in all my schoolwork by email.”

She knew it wasn’t her fault a bunch of dudes were being shitty, but her dad would worry and his worry came out in long unnecessary punishments under the pretense of being a protective parent. Sheriff Polk kind of got strict with Knucker, but not like her dad. Dad had her on a leash so tight, if she tugged too hard she’d strangle herself. It’s like he was afraid she was going to leave the house and rob a liquor store or something.

Kendall bit her lip, but after a moment she gave a slow nod.

“I live by Ryan’s Gas Station,” added Lexi.

She found herself faced with a new conundrum once she climbed behind Kendall. She figured out where to put her feet pretty quick, but what the hell was she supposed to do with her hands? Holding onto the seat didn’t feel secure at all, but the only other option was holding onto her. Right that moment the only thing Lexi could think of that’d be more awkward than that would’ve been tumbling off the back of the bike somewhere down the street and having to explain to her dad at the hospital that it was because she was afraid of hugging somebody.

“I’m just going to sneak my arms around here so I don’t die,” she announced in a muttered undertone.

“I don’t bite, I swear.” Kendall kicked up the side-stand with one booted foot and slid a key from her jeans pocket into the ignition. While Lexi was putzing about looping her arms in the most awkward way possible around the other girl’s waist (with a full inch gap of air between them), Kendall did some magic with the clutch and buttons that Lexi missed entirely, and the bike’s engine blazed to life.

“Okay. Uh, hang a little tighter,” Kendall warned, and then she was peeling simultaneously way too slow and way too fast away from the curb.

Lexi totally had this great and clever comeback line about how getting bit was the last thing she was afraid of (hello, single survivor of a hellish animal mauling here), but instead a strangled Oh fuck got blurted out as she tightened her arms around Kendall in a death grip. Any remaining concerns about clinging to a stranger were obliterated in that split second.

Once they’d taken a turn or two, Lexi was finding the experience not all that bad at all. Kendall seemed to know what she was doing (and where she was going, but you could list the gas stations in town on one hand so that wasn’t a shocker), and Lexi found that the ride felt a lot less like she was going to fall off at any second when she relaxed.

“This thing is cool,” she half hissed, half squealed over the rush of wind. Lexi officially knew what she wanted for Christmas.

“Thanks! It was my grandpa’s!” Kendall shouted in answer. Lexi hadn’t really expected her to hear, but of course she could hear her; Lexi was practically talking directly into her ear.

She didn’t try to keep up the conversation though, because they were merging onto the turnpike. Kendall’s ponytail was streaming in the wind behind her head as they zoomed down the open road. Lexi was kind of glad for the helmet now, because it would have smacked her right in the face without it–and her own hair would get all messed up, too.

Ryan’s Gas was on the very outskirts of Silent Pines, sandwiched between the big country turnpike and Devil’s Wood. It was prime real estate for gas, the last stop until you reached Merrywood and the closest fuel point to Lake Glass and all the campgrounds and hiking trails—and it was also the only place in town that catered to RVs. The gas station and auto shop had been in Lexi’s family since about the time Kendall’s bike had been built.

There wasn’t much else out here. Part of the area they called “Old Silent Pines”, where Knucker lived, was visible from the road, but only a few of the smaller brick homes like his. The view was mostly pine trees for miles and miles. Somewhere down a little further was the dirt road leading to a creepy-ass old cemetery that Knucker refused to go to, and past that was the Whelan family farm.

Lexi could see the red canopy of Ryan’s Gas coming up ahead. Kendall pulled into the station and slowed down as they approached the pumps, coming to a full stop and idling in one of the empty parking spots out front of the convenience store area of the station. She turned to look at Lexi over her shoulder.

“So…” she began.

Oh. Right. She should probably get off. Lexi hopped off the bike and onto the asphalt, finding herself bouncing on one foot just a bit to catch her balance. Sea legs (or motorcycle legs, or whatever it was) had her equilibrium out of whack again. Maybe it was just the exhilaration of a fun ride making all the blood rush to her head.

Speaking of which, Lexi pulled off the helmet and ran her hand through her hair trying to smooth out what was now a very staticky mess.

“Here.” She handed it to Kendall. “I now owe you twelve sodas for breaking an arm plus one if you didn’t make the football team. Did you?”

“Nah,” said Kendall, with a wry little twist of her mouth. “They let me try out, but uh… Coach said I should try rugby instead.”

She took the helmet and cradled it on her lap, the fingers of her other hand tapping against the handlebars of her bike. Her hair was windswept and not much better than Lexi’s.

“I haven’t decided if I’m gonna,” she went on. “What about you? Do you know yet if you made track?”

“Maybe you should go back and knock them all down again,” she commented with a frown. That had to suck. Seeing as how the girl was a giant and could handle sports equipment way better than Lexi ever could, she probably would have been awesome on the football team. What were they being choosy for anyway? They needed better players.

“They posted the sheet up for track today so you are looking at the newest uh… runner person.” Were they really just called runners? Lexi was going to have to figure out if they had a cooler name. In the meantime she scratched the back of her head, rubbing her fingers over that sore spot where her hair had been pulled.

“I’ll have to go to practice now once a week, I guess. Anyway, that’s thirteen sodas for you. I’d get you one now, but I’m still grounded for a few more days.”

“Then hit me up in a couple days,” replied Kendall, flashing a grin. “Got a pen in that backpack?”

Lexi did, in fact; she’d been using one of her dollar store knockoff Bics to check off her dad’s errand list, so it was sitting by itself in the side compartment and easy to get to. When Lexi stepped forward to hand it over with a totally unnecessary and weird flourish, Kendall gingerly grabbed her wrist.

“Here,” she said, uncapping the pen with her teeth and starting to neatly jot numbers onto the back of Lexi’s hand. Both of her feet were planted on the ground now, keeping her bike steady between her knees. “Gimme a text when you’re free. Unless, y’know, you need a jailbreak.”

“Ooookay.” Writing the number on her hand was totally unnecessary, Lexi thought. She could’ve just pulled out her phone directly and tapped it in there. She wasn’t sure if getting somebody’s number counted as part of her dad’s punishment no-no list. It had never actually happened before.

“A jailbreak is starting to sound more and more likely,” Lexi admitted, taking a few steps back and quickly holstering her hands in her back pocket before she started up with the finger guns again. Where did she even learn that? Who did that?! “I’ll probably see you at schoooool, then. Right?”

“Uh, yeah. Guess so.” Kendall slipped her shiny red helmet on over her head. Unlike Lexi, she lowered the visor, but not before adding a mumbled “Later, alligator.”

It wasn’t until Lexi watched the back of her plaid shirt disappear down the turnpike towards town that she realized she’d never even told Kendall her own name.

An ominous feeling had followed Knucker like a shadow all day. Maybe it was just the pounding headache behind his eyes that had him massaging his temples every other minute. (Could you get a hangover the day AFTER the day after?) Maybe he was just freaking out about Lexi being on the track team, or any number of the other alarming changes that his best friend was going through.

It had only gotten worse when Lexi had left on her own to go do errands for her dad. By the time Knucker was in the back of his dad’s squad car, he was basically reduced to holding his head in his hands.

“Kid, you okay?” Sheriff Polk was frowning at his son in the rear-view mirror. “You look like you’re gonna be sick.”

“Can I please go to the library?” Knucker blurted. “I know I’m grounded, but—”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Please,” he begged. “I have a thing I really need to research and the school library doesn’t cut it, you know that, and I can’t use the internet when I’m grounded and you said not to research on my phone anymore because I’ll go blind—”

“Jesus,” interrupted his dad. “Okay, okay, calm down. You wanna tell me what this is about?”

Knucker’s mouth snapped shut.

“…Homework,” he answered, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

“Bullshit,” replied the Sheriff, eyeing his son with overwhelming skepticism. Crap, why did Knucker’s dad have to be a cop?! There was a tense, long, incredibly awkward moment as they stared at each other in the mirror and Knucker tried to look as innocent and unoffensive and small in the backseat as possible (and failed entirely, he was pretty sure).

The Sheriff sighed. “Are you meeting Lexi at the library?”

No,” promised Knucker. “I swear. I really just need to do some research. It’s… It’s personal.”

“…We’re gonna talk about this later, son,” his dad warned. “Don’t think you’re out of it. But I guess I should just be happy I have a kid who wants to go to the library when he’s grounded and actually asked.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Knucker told him, slumping.

“Don’t thank me yet. I’m dropping you off and I’ll be picking you up in two hours. You’d better be exactly where I left you, you got that? Or you’re grounded for a whole month.”

The Silent Pines Library wasn’t exactly bustling on any day of the week, but on the Tuesday of the first week of school, it was practically a ghost town. Most kids Knucker’s age were still clinging to their summer freedom and not yet ready to jump straight back into the semester-long slog of books and research.

Knucker, obviously, was not most kids his age.

He wasn’t the only one, though. There was a teenager who Knucker had never seen in his life standing by the front desk and chatting with the librarian. He had dark hair with a bit of curl to it and was wearing a grey t-shirt, jeans, and leather shoes that looked like they cost more than Knucker’s whole outfit combined. He had a matching leather satchel over his shoulder. He turned to look at Knucker as he got closer, and Knucker inexplicably felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

“Hello,” said the stranger. “I’m sorry, am I in your way?”

“No,” stammered Knucker, realizing in a mortified rush that he’d been staring. (He really needed to stop just gawking at people.) “I was just—uh.”

The guy tilted his head, then turned back to the librarian. “Thank you for your help, miss.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied in a misty tone that Knucker had never heard her use before. The other boy straightened up and walked past Knucker toward the entrance. For a brief moment, he clapped Knucker on the shoulder.

“Ask her about what they keep in the back,” he mentioned in an undertone. Knucker blinked after him.

What the fuck was that? he asked himself, not even bothering to edit his own thoughts. The pounding in his skull had reached a crescendo. All he could hear now was a dull roar.

Knucker was beginning to recognize that underpinning of dread that had been nipping at his heels all day. It was a delayed epiphany, a creeping and slow-dawning realization, that his life was never ever ever going to be the same again.

Vampires Drafts

Blood Moon 011: Into the Woods (Original Draft)

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The air shimmered and rippled like it was a living thing, like something crawled or swam just beneath an unseen surface. He put his hand out, long fingers plucking as if at the strings of a guitar, seeking purchase and finding… nothing.

Just air.

“Fuck,” he muttered. He slipped a knife from the inside pocket of his worn leather jacket and crouched down in the dirt. The forest floor at his feet was littered with browned pine needles; a sweep of his hand cleared them away from the soil. With the handle of the knife, he scratched a mark into freshly-exposed earth.

As he straightened up again, a shadow flashed at the corner of his eye. He whirled, booted feet planting fast as he scanned the treeline. His sharp gaze darted between the trees as his grip adjusted around his blade.

These days, one could never be too careful. Hunter so easily became hunted.

“Come out, come out, whatever you are,” he called into the woods. “I’ve been looking for a spot of fun all day.”


Fucking figured.

The witch known to some as Walter the Nameless lowered his arm to his side and trekked back the way he came, back to the edge of the Devil’s Wood where it met the roadside.

Today had been a disappointment. This month had, really. That was why, when he reached his car and found that it was not sitting by its lonesome as it should be, he was less than amused.

“No,” he told the girl, pointing at her with the tip of his weapon. “I’m not in the mood to listen to your teenage woes right now, Jules. Not that I ever am, mind you.”

Julian sat perched on the hood of his car, and had been long enough to get bored and start fiddling with her phone while she waited. Her first attempts at finding Walter didn’t get her very far. She dropped by the Seventh Star just out of curiosity to see if he’d be there only to find it locked up and closed. Her initial psychic mojo attempts went as expected. You couldn’t psychic up the whereabouts of a witch trying hard not to be found. Julian had to get creative instead, which involved looking for Walter things. His car, apparently, was part of his no-lookie spells, but it didn’t stop Julian from zeroing in on his Cream CD. When she found the car parked at the edge of the wood, she was really, really proud of herself.

That was probably why she was grinning ridiculously wide, all teeth and cheeky smugness.

“…do you ever get your assumptions right, or is it just me you totally fail with?” Julian asked, genuinely curious. He was still alive and surely had to be good at being the witchy overlord of Silent Pines. But he never did get her right. Maybe his blind spot was weird teenage girls.

She stuffed her phone in her jacket pocket as she bounced to her feet. Now he was getting a different kind of look. An examining gaze and squint of her eyes as she tried to figure out what he might’ve been doing wandering around the woods carrying around a knife.

“I actually have more interesting problems. Witchy overlord level problems, maybe. I could probably take care of it all myself, but it’d be a lot easier cashing in those ten thousand favors you owe me.”

“The fact that you’re even here tells me you’re getting better at being a psychic, so maybe I’ll believe you.” He stared at her, tucking his knife away again. “You are one for interesting predicaments, when you’re not chasing dead boys.”

There was something different about her, he decided, tilting his head. There were any number of things it could be. He would have to mull it over before he settled on any one cause. In the meantime, if she thought she had something interesting, Walter was all ears. God knew he could use the entertainment.

“What do you want then?” he cut right to the chase. His hands slipped into his jacket pockets.

Walter was a man of many uniforms. Today’s was the jacket, worn over a dark blue plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans. Practical for roaming about in the woods. Around his neck hung his pendant, as always, but this time it wasn’t tucked into his clothes.

He wasn’t the only one wearing special jewelry either, he noticed.

“I want more of those mints.” she said first, turning on her heels to wander over to the driver’s window. She cupped her hands so she could shield the glare of the sun from the glass and peer inside. “What I need is answers to a million questions and I don’t know where to start first.”

Julian turned around to lean against the door, tilting her head as she put all her questions in order and debated what was most important and what would be easiest to get resolved faster. The Augur concerned her the most, considering he was out to kill anyone he deemed kill-worthy, and would come with the expected lectures. Lucinda was going to end up being a tricky discussion. Witches were Walter’s business and that would be a whole ordeal, probably with extra lecturing.

She glanced down at her hands, where she was already subconsciously fussing with the chain of her pendant.

Whelp, this one was an easy one.

Julian lift the chain with both her thumbs, dangling the pendant in the light.

“This first! It’s mine and I know it’s mine. I also know it’s my family’s. But I’ve never really seen it before until I found it stuffed in my mailbox with no clue of who sent it. Which is beyond weird. Aaaand being a dumb teenager girl, I checked with the boyfriends first.” she said with wry grin. “They have no idea either. So now I gotta ask the witchy Overlord what it is and where it’s from.”

Ah. Now she had his attention.

Walter stepped forward, leaning in to inspect the pendant- though he didn’t touch. He wasn’t born yesterday.

“That, Jules, is a very interesting gift for someone to leave you. The most interesting part being, of course, where the fuck they found it.” He lifted his eyes to hers. “Wasn’t me. Sorry to break your heart.”

Straightening up again, he tilted his head, tapping his foot. Walter had seen the charm before, but only in pictures. Nonetheless, he could shed light on one or two things. If Jules was ready to hear them was more the question.

“I can tell you what you’d get from a Google search or better yet opening an actual book,” continued the witch. “The main stone is called blue lace agate, and it’s meant to help with calmness and communication, especially with your ‘higher self’ or with beings not of this world. The little one is rose quartz. You’ll like this; it’s considered a love stone. Mainly because it’s good for healing emotional damage. Both of them have focusing, healing, and protective properties. If you buy into crystals, which you actually should. It’s not all garbage. Not in the hands of the right people.”

He wiggled his fingers at her mockingly.

“I could’ve gotten that kind of information from Angela.” she sounded just slightly exasperated. “When this stuff first came up a few months ago I did the Googling thing about stones, but I didn’t really do much with it. ..Uhm, not sure why that was the first thing I thought of, but I guess it makes sense now.”

Julian pulled her hands back and turned the pendant abut in her hands as if she could the answers she wanted written on the stones and metal somewhere. She’d probably done it a dozen times already in random moments followed by long stretches of time where she just forgot it existed at all. Or perhaps less like it didn’t exist, and more like it was such a normal thing for her to have that even despite the little buzz to it, Julian just didn’t notice.

Kind of how her shadows now didn’t get a second thought. They were just there. They were always there.

“I need to know more than the dictionary stuff. The what it’s for and where it came from stuff. Especially now that my dreams of being the Witch Overlord’s favorite feisty apprentice have been totally dashed.” There went that grin again, cheeky smugness and deliberate teasing. But just as quickly it vanished, leaving Julian tilting her head as she adjusted her posture against his car. She crossed her arms, tapping her fingers against her elbows while she bit in to her lip with a thoughtful frown.

“Really, I guess I’m not worried about it and whether it’s good or bad, but more of why someone sent it all anonymous. If it’s not someone I know, that means there’s a person out there lurking around being creepy and pulling strings. And I don’t LIKE it. Everyone is paranoid enough without having to worry about a mysterious benefactor messing with me. I’ve got enough to deal with already.”

“Sounds to me like you already have it all figured out.” She was actually doing quite well. Color Walter impressed. “Which means you can get your grubby ass off my car.”

He made a shooing motion as he fished out his keys and reached past her to unlock the door. Without waiting for her to budge, he hauled full force on the handle. If she fell, it only served her right.

“What the internet couldn’t tell you is that your new favorite accessory is contraband. Stolen,” Walter clarified, giving her a look that made it clear how much he doubted whether she knew what “contraband” meant.

Julian stumbled but caught her bearings pretty quick. Walter earned a very offended pursing of her lips before she stomped around the front over to the passenger’s side. Her fingernail tapped gently against the glass near the lock. If Walter didn’t unlock it, Francis would. Today the witch was stuck with her until she at least had enough information to stop feeling like she was flailing about in a rain storm without an umbrella.

“I KNOW what contraband is.” she stated with a huff, casting him a frown from over the roof of his car. “Stolen from who? Hollingers? I do know it’s been gone a long time. Black and white pictures of old dead people long time.”

Raising up on her toes, she stretched out her arms to drape over the car roof. She grinned again, wiggling her fingers in his direction as if she were trying to coax the answers out of him. “Why don’t you just tell me what it is already? If you’re dragging it out to spend more time with your new best friend, don’t worry. I have plenty of other stuff to talk about too.”

“I really don’t have anything figured out.”

Walter didn’t unlock the door for her, because he wasn’t getting in the car.

He leaned in to fetch a tin of mints from the cup holder by the gear shift, tossing them to her over the car’s roof; a moment later, he reached inside again to fish a map from under the driver’s seat. He slammed the door shut and spread the map out flat across the hood of the car, fingers outlining the words Devil’s Wood. The paper was old and faded, creased so badly in bits that it was splitting apart.

“Do you want to know what I’ve been up to, Jules?” he asked, as if he hadn’t heard a thing she’d said in the last minute. “Or do you think I’ve been sitting around with my thumb up my ass all month.”


Julian was glad people couldn’t hear her thoughts, because even she knew that was a goofy thing to suddenly get excited about. Unfortunately, she didn’t realize that exclamation was also written all over her face. The tin got a little shake as she tried to guess how many were in there, then immediately opened so she could pop a couple mints in to her mouth.

The rest vanished in to her jacket pocket.

“Of course I want to know.” she admitted, sliding over a few steps to lean and take a look at his weird old map. He was wandering around in Devil’s Wood, obviously she’d be curious about the whys. This thing just made it worse, too. How was she supposed to ask all of her questions if Walter was going to bait her with interesting things like this.

“I didn’t think you’d tell me what sort of Overlordy things you get in to, so I wasn’t going to ask. I was just going to tell you all of my problems and see if you had anything helpful to say, and if not, I was going to take the candy and run.”

Twisting up her mouth and eyeing the map, she held out a hand before laying her finger down on a spot.

“Very good,” Walter told her, satisfaction brimming under the surface. “Except for the part where you have no idea what you’re finding. Get Thing One to give you a little more tutoring. Then again, I understand his idea of tutoring is to throw you down holes and play children’s games.”

Walter splayed out his hand, palm-side down atop the map just beside where she prodded it. His knuckles were not quite bumping into the tip of her finger.

“You can’t stumble around blind forever, Jules, and hope to find what you’re looking for.”

He was talking about more than just her visions, now.

“I’ve been checking for wear and tear,” continued Walter. His thumb brushed over a rough spot on the paper. “Places where the air thins, shall we say. It’s been worse since David tried to force what shouldn’t be forced.”

Julian let out an exasperated breath and rolled her eyes to the sky. “You’re absolutely right. Wandering around clueless just isn’t working for me. I should probably seek out someone that’s been around before, knows a lot about the town history, and probably magic too. Someone smart and kind of powerful, or I don’t know is an asshole witch boss.”

She had to wonder if he was like this on purpose just to be a pain in the ass.

“If you’re going to act like one of those vague old wizard mentors who spits out mysterious statements that I’m not going to understand until three months later, this is going to be a really frustrating relationship.” she complained, slumping over the hood to rest her elbows on the metal surface and then her chin in her hands. Her eyes glanced over the map again. Walter was looking for the thinning of air? What did that even-

Something blocked her way. Clear and buzzing. When she rose her hand to touch it, it rippled. On pushing her hand through it, it felt like a curtain of water. And on the other side? Somewhere else.

All she had to do was step through it. All she had to do was–

Julian blinked and frowned. Her mouth twist to the side as she chewed in to her lip.

“He put the wrong key in the lock.” she mumbled softly. “The veil is a place and it’s supposed to be a locked place, but it’s not been locked for a really long time and now it’s bleeding through because Hightowers are jerks? And you are… Well. If you’re a GOOD witch overlord, you’re trying to sew it all up.”

“But what would I know, since none of you want to TELL me what you’re actually up to.” The statement came out as a surly huff.

“Get used to it.” She was far too easy to rile. Girlie ought to work on that, he reckoned, but in the meantime he’d enjoy it. “You surround yourself with people who don’t like to share. I could likely read all sorts of things into that, but instead I’ll get the ball rolling a bit so you don’t perish of impatience.”

Tugging the map out from under her elbow, he rolled it up and wiggled it in front of her face, clearly waiting for her to take it.

“Of course I’m trying to patch it up,” he said. “Don’t be stupid. It won’t be a pretty sight if something gets its claws into a hole and widens it enough to slip through. Between all the bullshit David and Tasha have been pulling, I’m not certain something hasn’t already.”

Get used to it? No, Julian was finding the very opposite was starting to happen. Every last one of them wanted to be difficult, and she was quickly losing patience with the entire ordeal. One of these assholes was going to answer her the way she wanted them to, or she was going to hold them down and MAKE them do it.

Julian was already gearing up, debating how exactly she was going to do that now when he wagged the map in her face. Just like that, her plots of stuffing Walter in to the trunk of his own car vanished in the wake of something a lot more curious. At the very least, if he needed help she could learn things along the way.

Holy crap, did he mean actual claws in to holes and things skittering out in to the world? David did mention other, scarier things…

Julian snatched the rolled up map, holding it up with both hands as she tried to keep that wide-eyed look off her face and tempered to something that gave the impression she had SOME idea of what she was doing.

“Whaaaat if I told you I maybe see things sometimes, but never really direct things, but I know they are THINGS kind of like my shadows, but not really shadows, and they are definitely not always ghosts, or visions, or my usual brand of weirdo companions?”

“…and that’s not even what I wanted to talk to you about, by the way, but if I help you with this,” she wiggled the map, “will you help me with my things? I have an augur problem and a possible witch problem, and at least one of those has to be your business.”

“Augurs?” Walter’s eyebrows rose. “That sounds more like your pets’ business than mine. Either of them killed anyone lately?”

He hoped not. Jules would likely be impossible to deal with if Walter had to put down Thing One or Thing Two. Walter knew which of those two he’d prefer to get his hands on, but he’d do what was necessary regardless if the little bastards couldn’t be trusted to keep their fangs to themselves. He didn’t need an Augur to handle that for him.

Walter drummed his fingers on the hood of the car, narrowing his eyes at her.

“These things you’re seeing might be nothing. Well, not nothing. Glimpses. I’ve known someone else who could see through to the other side, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s all it is. I’ll keep it in mind, though. Moving on… what sort of witch problem? That, after all, is my business. Really the thing you should have led off with, Jules.”

Yep, she knew he was immediately going to assume one of her vampire boyfriends killed somebody. …To be honest with herself, she was worried it might be true. Leo hadn’t recognized the guy or knew who he was, but she hadn’t had a chance to talk to Michael about it yet. With the way he lost it a few days ago and the things she knew about him now, it was pretty easy to believe he could have. Julian didn’t know how she was going to deal with that yet.

She pushed it back and focused on the present moment. If she got upset about it now, there was no telling how her Francises would try to help.

“I like to save the complicated problems for last.” Julian muttered, leaning against his car as she crossed one arm around herself and tapped the edge of the map against her chin. Now that she had the opportunity to say something, Julian was finding it hard to do so. It’s not like Lucinda told her not to. She encouraged her to bring it up with Walter if she wanted. …but there was this weird unsettled feeling, like it was a bad idea. Like someone would get hurt?

But that was crazy.

…and it meant she absolutely needed to say something.

“My new counselor is a witch.” she blurted out quickly. “Erm. My therapist, who is now the new school counselor, is a witch. And I didn’t realize this until she was setup in the old counselor’s office with a spell I finally clued in about. I got ill every time I left her therapy office and it happened again. At first I thought it was the spell.”

“But I’m NOT stupid, I know something isn’t right. …it’s just, I don’t want Leo to know how much I believe him and that I’m concerned about it. He’s already got enough bullshit to deal with. So I kiiiind oooof need to know what to do about a potential stalker witch who I KNOW, really know, isn’t trying to hurt me, but is still super shady? Leo wants me to give her a different spell and see what she does, but I kinda just want to go kick in her door and ask questions.”

That was absolutely too much hysterical rambling to parse through quickly. Walter was going to need a minute.

He reached out to clamp his hand over her mouth to ensure he got one.

“That’s better,” he observed. “Right. Your counselor- no, therapist– is a witch. You get ill around her, and there’s some kind of fuss about a spell that might be the culprit. I’m assuming the fact you didn’t know she was a witch and the unexplained illness are the causes of concern?”

Walter waited half a beat, then peeled his fingers away.

“Oh right,” he intoned drily. “You may speak now. Clearly and to the point, please.”


She actually made the sound after he pulled his hand away. Because she was still leaning there, arms crossed, but now with her eyes as wide as saucers and this are you kidding me look of bewilderment plastered all over her face. Soon enough it shifted, until she was pursing up her lips as if she had just been chewing on a sour piece of candy. It’s what it felt like too. Julian was pissed, but even stronger than that was the urge to burst out laughing.

Walter was such an unbelievable shit. Why did she LIKE these kind of people?

Julian sucked in a deep calming breath, mostly just to make sure she didn’t actually laugh or give him the satisfaction of a grin. Instead he received the most imperious, unimpressed teenage girl stare she could muster up.

“I am SO sorry. Let me translate that in to slow old man.” she pointed at him with the frayed rolled up map. “Hiding Spell, Oh Shit a Witch, Cranky Julian, Scared Witch, Reasonable Explanations, Sick Julian, Stuff Still Feels Wrong, What do? Is that more to the point for you?”

Julian paused long enough to drop the sass and shrug her shoulders. “I’m missing something, is all. I thought it was the spell because it blocks everything outside the room. I step inside and nothing gets in even for me, I feel kind of smothered? Then when I leave I have this huge headache, like a hangover but it’s more psychicy.”

“Hm.” A contemplative expression crossed his features. “Interesting. Have you had the same problem with my car? No, can’t have. You had that vision on Halloween, and you rode around in it for hours…”

“Leo said the same thing.” Of course Julian knew this was going to be the general consensus. “Your car is different. Just by a tiny little bit? Maybe David’s spell was a bit different too, but I can’t really compare it since I was half dead to begin with.”

There went the shrug of her shoulders again before she tilted her head back and sighed. “Thus, Leo said I should get a new spell from you to give to her. Tell her that her spell makes me sick and see what happens. She did tell me that I could ask you about her spell if I was still suspicious about her? I would have told her right then I feel sick after leaving her office, but I didn’t remember THAT until I was already gone. Normally I feel better on my walk home and it’s not really a big deal, this time it was just worse than usual and Leo was worried about it.”

Julian blinked for a split second before she suddenly frowned. “I don’t remember telling her about you.” …Just as quickly as that thought occurred to her, she wilted and huffed. “Buuut, Leo DID ask Tina about you. My social worker. And SHE talks to her so…”

“Ugh. See! That is what I mean, little things seem off and there’s always a perfectly normal explanation! But I still feel weird about it.”

“Always listen to the little voice that doubts, Jules. That’s how you live to see the end of the book.”

Walter tucked away a tidy little mental file labeled Lucinda, to be dealt with at a later time. For now…

“I’ll give you your spell,” he told Jules. “After we go on a little field trip. It’ll be good for both of us. You help me with something that helps all of us, and you get help with your therapist problem. Along with a bit of that practice you so desperately need. Really you’re getting the better end of the bargain here, I think.”

He pointed a long, bony finger at her.

“Your turn. Lead the way.”

They had to leave the car behind again; the path Julian forged led them back into the wood, far deeper than Walter had been on his earlier forays and far away from the relative tameness of the camping trails and Lake Glass. The woods here were still untouched by the modern age, the trees remnants of an older and wilder time.

Walter felt right at home. But then, he supposed that was because he was.

It was hard to say if the sun was going down or if the canopy was just so thick here that nothing much of the sun could break through. Whatever the case, the light grew dim. Mist rose in thin wisps from the ground, casting the air in a haze. Up ahead through the trees, Walter caught a glimpse of a large bulging shape.

The nearer they drew the more clearly they could see that it was a great mound of earth. It was easily three times Walter’s height and overgrown with moss and brush and even some saplings- one which he guessed would come up to his shoulder, if he were to stand alongside it. But the flora wasn’t precisely the most interesting facet of its appearance.

Its surface was pockmarked with holes. Literal holes, some the size of his fist and others much larger. One on the side facing them was just large enough for him to walk into, if he stooped.

Past the mouth of the cave was nothing but deep black.

All circumstances aside, Julian actually enjoyed hiking through the woods. Even though Walter was not a forthcoming conversationalist and even despite how the brush got more difficult and more eerie to stumble through the farther they got away from the public forest, she still like it. There was fresh air, pretty trees, and it was nice and quiet.

If she ignored the whispering anyway. Julian was so busy squinting at a couple shadows trying to figure it out if that was them or something else, that she didn’t notice the creepy hill of holey hell until she glanced up to see a gaping black space.

She stopped and jumped back so suddenly she nearly crashed in to Walter.

Letting out a breath and shoving her hands in to her pockets, Julian flashed the man a dirty look as if her stumbling was his fault, before she gave a wary glance around. She did not like the feel of this. Why was she always wandering off and finding the creepiest looking things lost in the forest? First that cabin and now this. It couldn’t ever be a ice cream shop or a bunny farm, could it.

Out of paranoid reflex, Julian turned slowly on her heel to scan around for sight of that spooky doll. There was no telling how far Kyle chucked it in to the woods, and if the damn thing had other ways to be mobile. Thankfully that thing was no where near by and not her problem.

“What do tears in the veil look like, anyway? Or am I just really good at finding places to get murdered at? Because THAT-” she pulled a hand out just long enough to point, “looks like a murder cave.”

“You can’t actually see tears in the veil, don’t be silly.” He glanced at her askance. “Well. Maybe you can. These though, these are very much of the physical realm.”

The witch swatted the girl out of the way and strode forward until he could easily place one hand against a solid part of the mound. The green growth sprouting up from the loamy soil was damp and cool beneath his palm, slick from the mist and recent rain.

“This, Jules, is what we call a barrow.” He smiled. “A burial mound. You may call it a murder cave if that’s your fancy.”

When Walter relinquished his hold on the moss, a pale light kissed the tips of his fingers. He splayed them outward and the faint glow grew stronger.

“Flashy, I know. But I’m afraid I didn’t bring a torch.”

“Okay, not a murder cave, a cadaver cave. That’s better I guess.” A burial mound did sound a lot less scary than all the crazy things her imagination was trying to come up with. Julian could handle dead people.

Her hand swiveled until her finger was pointing at him instead of the cave. The words what the fuck were mouthed rather than said. Probably because in that split second she realized this was either fancy nature science that only Angela would understand or it was a little nature fueled magic, which would be really awesome to see in action when it wasn’t getting flung at her in the form of fireballs or kicking off an apocalypse.

“For a witch overlord that’s paranoid about everything, shouldn’t you be a little more prepared?” she asked, slipping her hand in to her pocket to pull out her key-chain and spin it on a finger. Julian jangled her keys before she held up the tiny little key-chain flashlight. It wasn’t going to be much better, but that wasn’t the point.

She stepped over to the cave opening, pressing the flashlight button with a click and shining it inside.

Yeah, this was only going to save her from walking face first in to spiders at best.

Julian frowned at Walter. “Give me one of your knives and I’ll go first?”

“No,” he refused flatly, giving her a thoroughly unimpressed look.

“I am prepared,” he continued with a wiggle of his luminescent fingers. “That’s one of the nice things about magic, you know. It reduces the amount of crap you need to carry with you. Like batteries. Unfortunately, it means you’re the batteries.”

Walter didn’t share Julian’s hesitation. He grabbed her by the elbow and tugged her along as he stepped into the mouth of the cave, holding his hand aloft to light the way. Despite the soft glow, it illuminated the tunnel fairly well, creating a small sphere of light around the pair. The inside was hard-packed earth, riddled with the roots of plants and small chips of stone.

It was also deathly quiet. He wondered if Julian had noticed that the insects and birds had faded from the background noise as they reached the clearing containing the mound, but now even the wind and rustling of trees was muted. The only sound was the soft echoes of their footsteps on tamped-down dirt.

Julian almost asked why the hell not about the knife, but she got the impression it was less about giving some kid a weapon and more about Walter just not liking people touching his stuff. Now that she thought about it, whatever did happen to the one knife she confiscated back in the mausoleum on Halloween? Angela made sure it didn’t leave the Whelan house with her. Did it ever make it’s way back to Walter?

That question got shoved to the back of her mind in the wake of their current adventure. Julian fussed just enough to yank her elbow free and give Walter a sour expression. She didn’t need to get dragged in; she was on board with this creepyass adventure. All she was concerned about was the unexpected ways this was going to go wrong.

It was kind of funny. A couple months ago she hated the thought of knowing what was coming, because it felt like she had no control. No choice. Now it was the opposite. Now she could do all kinds of things.

If the psychic mojo would just work the way she wanted it to. That was the catch, though. It never did.

“And what do you do when you don’t have your magic battery charged?” she asked, with just a know-it-all snark that every teenager in Silent Pines instinctively knew how to do. The beam from her flashlight waved briefly in his eyes. “Twenty different weapons in your pockets, I bet.”

She hadn’t realized how quiet it had gotten until just then. Somehow she had reflexively lowered her voice as to not disturb the weird muted silence. Grimacing at the feel of it, Julian used her little flashlight as a spotlight to hover over the things that caught her eye. She wasn’t exactly the investigator type, but even she could tell that this wasn’t some freshly dug out hole by a bear or anything. The ground was just a little too hard.

“…is this even supposed to be here?” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth towards Walter.

“The barrow is a remnant of another time,” Walter answered. “Not all of the first residents of Silent Pines chose to be interned in mausoleums or beneath headstones in their family plot. And not all of them had a choice.”

It wasn’t far into the tunnel that the walls became rough-hewn stone. This had once been the real entrance, Walter imagined, before the years had deposited more and more earth atop the mound. Even to him, there was an eerie feeling as the oval of sunlight grew smaller at their backs. A prickling sensation, as if something, somewhere, was watching and waiting from within the depths of the cave.

It sounded like his imagination was running away from him… but Walter knew better.

“Places like this tend to wear down on their own,” he continued, stepping over a stray bit of bone. Animal, he reckoned, though he doubted Julian would be able to tell. “I’ve been here for a little maintenance more than once. Significant events, significant places… The more friction, essentially, the more often it needs a bit of patchwork. It’s part of the job.”

He gave Julian a measuring look.

“The last time I was here, I wasn’t alone either, as it happens. Life is a funny thing, Jules.”

Something about his job description sounded familiar. Almost as if someone else had tried to explain something similar to her a long time ago. Were she not battling with the oppressive weight of the dark, she might’ve thought more on it. Ever so often she’d glance back to make sure she could still see the little bit of light from the entrance of the cave. The fact that the walls shifted from dirt to stone wasn’t much of a comfort. It almost looked like the same stone that lined the walls in the underground crypts. Could those tunnels reach out farther than just the graveyard? Or were there just a lot of things buried under Silent Pines.

Julian poked at one of the bones with the toe of her sneaker. Her previous thought of being able to handle dead people was amended. She could handle dead people, but not dead bodies. At least none of these bones looked like they belonged to a person. She hoped.

“Were you with your friend witch? Claudia.” She’d remembered the name, practically snarled at her in one of those rare moments Walter revealed something personal. His partner at the Seventh Star, murdered by Tasha in her quest to help David do whatever crazy thing he was trying to do. It was hard to imagine Walter even having friends. He sure didn’t seem to be keen on working with people in general.

“No. Another old friend.” Walter ducked his head as the ceiling of the tunnel grew lower, stretching out his glowing fingers ahead of him. They were getting close. “His name was Jeremy.”

The end of the tunnel opened into a central chamber within the barrow. Walter closed his hand into a fist as they stepped across the threshold, the soft light of his spell extinguishing. There was no longer a need. The many holes within the barrow’s outer shell all led to the center of the mound, casting small circles of dim sunlight across the dirt floor like scattered leaves. Walter crossed to a broad stone pedestal in the center and placed his palm against a basin emblazoned with a familiar symbol… the Iron Star.

A flame flickered to life atop the pedestal.

“I wouldn’t look at the walls if you’re squeamish,” he advised Julian. “They didn’t feel a need to put things out of sight so much, in those days.”

The skeletons didn’t bother Walter, not as long as they stayed safely tucked in their cubbyholes and let him work. He’d seen many worse things in his lifetime.

By reflex her eyes started wandering towards the walls before she quickly jerked her gaze back to the unusual pedestal. There had to be some kind of irony in the fact her wardrobe was littered in random skulls, but the thought of seeing real ones made her skittish. Maybe once upon a time this sort of thing didn’t bother her at all. Before she started dating dead guys and hanging out with witch overlords.

Julian kept her tiny flashlight on, giving the scattered holes in the ceiling a distrustful frown. She slipped her other hand in to her pocket and popped open the can of mints. As she pressed one to the tip of her tongue, the name Jeremy sank in.

“We’ve actually met, a very long time ago. You wouldn’t remember. I didn’t.”

“You said we met before. Did you know my family?” Both her dad and grandpa were named Jeremy, and sure the name was common enough it could’ve been anyone, but Julian was finding very few things were just coincidences these days. If Hollingers were always strong psychics and Walter made it his business to know who was who in Silent Pines, he had to know them.

Suddenly, Julian wasn’t so concerned about cave skeletons, mysterious pendants, or eerie feelings that more than just her shadows were lurking around. Walter was a possible connection to a history she still struggled to remember.

“And you have to tell me this time. No more questions for questions. I’m just going to follow you everywhere if you don’t, and you won’t have any candy left.”

“Yes,” Walter told her. “I did.”

He didn’t elaborate. Ignoring her, he turned in a slow circle, his eyes scanning every inch of the chamber. He couldn’t see anything other than bits of bone peeking out from within the walls. But this close, he could feel an unraveling, like little frayed threads brushing at the back of his neck. If he could just pinpoint the source…

But then, that was why he’d brought the girl.

“Alright, Jules. Old game, new rules. Close your eyes and tell me what you see.”

Julian got her confirmation, but that was it. She should have expected it, really. Walter wasn’t going to suddenly become more forthcoming and a less of a pain in her ass. Her unamused, urging stare continued and Julian had every intention of badgering it out of him. Up until his request reminded her that the only reason he was putting up with her round of questions was because she was supposed to be helping.

“I don’t usually see stuff when I close my eyes,” she complained, closing her eyes anyway with a frown. Julian folded her arms over her chest, clicking off her flashlight when she rolled it between her fingers. Though she didn’t know what she was looking for, she got the gist of what she was supposed to be doing. He wanted to find something here and the sooner she found it the sooner she could get her answers. Her mouth twisted to the side as she tried to get a feel for the place.

…was that why he was here with her dad or grandpa before?

“Was it Dad or Grandpa?” Julian couldn’t help but ask, needing something to focus on beside the witch. Like Michael and Leo, Walter was very present in the space. She was trying to ignore everything that was distinctly Walter and feel out the rest. Earth, stone, and shadows along with something eerie and familiar. Julian closed her arms tighter at the chill of goosebumps.

“That time?”

Julian could barely hear his footsteps over the bees-in-a-jar buzzing of Walter’s magic. It almost felt like the bees were in Julian’s bones. But she did realize he was getting closer, even before the hand fell on her shoulder. Weirdly, his touch seemed to ground her; the buzz faded to a dull hum in the background.

“That time it was dear Jezza. Your father,” he clarified, after a beat. “Just a little bit the lesser of two evils, I’d reckon. The Hollingers and I have quite the history, truth be told.”

“Jezza.” she stated flatly. Julian could bet her dad wasn’t keen on that nickname. It was surprisingly easy to imagine her dad and Walter shooting snarky comments back and forth in the dark while her dad did psychic things. Her kind of things. She could almost even see past what was fuzzy and concealed about who the man used to be before something had taken a blackout marker to everything even remotely supernatural in her memories.

Unlike outside of the mausoleum on Halloween night, Walter touching her wasn’t absorbing all of her attention. Maybe because this time knowing he’d been here before and have a fairly good idea of what he was looking for was useful. Julian unfolded her arms and shook them out at her sides, trying to get that creepy-crawlie sensation out of her limbs, before she lift her hands and wiggled her fingers. The memory of her strange dream came to mind again. A rippling curtain of nothingness that she could so easily push her hand through. Would that be the veil he was talking about?

“Y’know, this is where you’re supposed to tell me all the fun and murderous adventures you had with my dad so I can be amazed and horrified.” Her mouth turned in a faintly confused expression when she bit in to her cheek and twisted her hand to point off to the side.

“And this is where you’re supposed to be concentrating,” he shot back, dry and mocking. “We can have sappy reminiscences about your twit of a father some other-”

He never finished the sentence. Instead his fingers dug in painfully tight on her shoulder just as his words cut off. Even before she heard Walter swear a sharp curse, even before she opened her eyes, Julian felt the change in the air around them. The temperature plummeted to an icy chill; something pulsed. When she did open her eyes, it was in time to see the flame upon the pedestal die out soundlessly.

One by one, the spots of sunlight on the floor began to wink out.

In the distance, there was a sound. At first Julian thought it was a woman screaming, but it was just a little too guttural, a little too wild- and when she listened closer, it was intertwined with a shuddering and snarling undercurrent.

“Well now,” rasped Walter. “I reckon company’s coming.”


Her flashlight was back out of her pocket again in a heartbeat. The look on her face had to be comical, she knew. Something in between defiant denial and furious horror. Angela had once described it to her shortly after she successfully tricked Julian in to seeing some gruesome thriller. Julian definitely had that feeling now. Only this time she couldn’t go stomping down popcorn littered isles to find the sun again. Instead she was in a dark cadaver cave with a witch who liked to leave out important details until after it was already too late.

“That better be a ghost, Walter.” she hissed, almost stumbling over the words. “Tell me that’s a ghost or a bear or a ghost bear and give me something sharp and stabby or I swear to god-”

Julian didn’t bother finishing the threat, she was already digging in to her jacket pockets for something useful. A ghost would be fine. A ghost she could talk to. But if something a little more physical was about to claw it’s way through those weird holes in the barrow, Julian wanted a better weapon than her rose pepper spray.

“Jules, shut up,” he snapped in a furious whisper. That was when her flashlight turned on him, and she got a halfway-decent look at Walter’s face.

For the first time since they’d met, the witch looked rattled.

“I need you to listen to me,” he told her through his teeth. “Look around you.”

The barrow was dark, but with her dinky little flashlight she could make out the outlines of the holes and crevices that pockmarked the smooth stone. What was she even looking for? Walter didn’t say. Everything looked the same. Except…

The cubbyholes that Walter had warned her about were empty. No skeletons.

Other things were off too, she realized. Little things. The floor was covered in strange stains, and there was something black and throbbing in the basin of the pedestal.

“We are not in Kansas anymore,” said Walter, as the shrieking din seemed to get louder. Closer. “Stop whining and start navigating.”

Nope. Nooo. Nuh uh. No. Noooope.

Julian mouthed the words that were on a repeating loop in her head, but she still forced her feet to start moving. If only because there was no way in hell she wanted to be within stretchy reach of that basin. She didn’t know what was in it, but anything that seemed to pulse all by itself was a bad sign.

This was fine. This was Walter’s day job. So what if the sleeping skeletons were gone and everything smelled like mildew and decay. It wasn’t a big deal the sun was missing and witch overlord mentor sounded just a little bit alarmed about their sudden field trip. Julian slapped her hand over her mouth before nervous laughter, or worse, anxious crying slipped it’s way out.

“Do you want me navigating away from the screeching death siren or towards it?!” she seethed back at him, having dropped her own voice down to a barely audible whisper as she watched where she placed her feet carefully. Last thing she wanted to do was step on something that’d bite her foot off. “…and it’s not whining to want a knife!”

The knife’s handle pressed into her hand before she even finished the word. Walter’s fingertips came away glowing, but the light was far fainter than it had been before. He fished another knife out of his jacket and shifted it into his right hand.

“There’s only one way out of this mound,” he reminded her. “After that you need to find the tear. Provided your powers of detection work on both sides. Here’s hoping.”

Without waiting, he headed into the tunnel entrance.

The walls of the tunnel were… different. Where before there had been dry and tight-packed earth, they were now wet and dripping. The ground squelched beneath Julian’s shoes, mud leaking into her sneakers. The wailing and growling was still muffled and far away, but it seemed to echo unnaturally through the passage.

They hadn’t gotten far before it went silent.

“Lovely,” muttered Walter. “Now we’re blind. Unless you think you can multitask?”

Oh hell. He wasn’t supposed to actually think it was necessary to give her a weapon. Now she absolutely, under no circumstances, could start crying. Crying was no longer an option.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll multitask.” she muttered, gripping the handle of the knife tight. Julian had no idea if she could, but she was now on the tip of her soggy sock clad toes and wary of everything around her. Nothing was going to sneak up on her if she could help it. Psychic mojo in play or not.

“Why is everything so squishy.” she squeaked out under her breath, not really wanting or needing an answer. Despite the icy chill, even the air felt wet. Julian supposed it was from a heavy fog. She caught a glimpse of little wisps curling through the beam of her flashlight.

Grimacing, she made sure to keep Walter within grabbing distance. He had a bad habit of getting attacked by dead things or kidnapped and Julian didn’t want to find herself lost and alone with no idea how to get back. The sooner she found that tear, the sooner she could go home and hide under nice warm blankets.

At the back of her mind, Julian felt a tug.

When she turned around, the inner chamber of the barrow was still within view. As she watched, something dropped from the ceiling and landed with a heavy thud at the foot of the pedestal.

It was large. Something human-shaped, in a loose sense, with overlong arms and legs like a walking stick insect. Its flesh looked charred. Black with veins of raw red seeping through where the top layer was cracked. It lifted its head to look directly at Julian with the empty space where eyes should be.

She’d thought it didn’t have a mouth, either, before it opened wide. Too wide, like a snake unhinging its jaw. And it shrieked.

Duck!” yelled Walter. That was all the warning Julian got before the knife whizzed over the top of her head and lodged in the thing’s open maw. Undeterred, it screamed and tore the blade out of the dark hole of its mouth. The blade clattered on the stone floor as it tossed it aside.

Meanwhile Walter had grabbed Julian and all but threw her forward down the tunnel. He didn’t have to tell her that he wanted her to start running.

Julian wouldn’t cry, but she could scream. At least she tried to, but nothing more than a strangled gasp came out. Which may have been a good thing considering something definitely not human was chasing after them and Julian had no idea whether or not it had a legion of friends. She’d never been more sure of her footing than right then, hopping over gnarled roots and side-stepping around muddy puddles that might’ve otherwise broken her neck.

“That’s not a person!” she managed to shout when she found the mouth of the tunnel. The lack of sunlight was also concerning, but when she skidded to a sudden stop in the small clearing outside of the barrow it wasn’t the missing sun that stunned her. This place was different. Of course she’d known that moments before when everything got a million times more creepy. There was just a weird deja vu about the trees that had nothing to do with her walkabout with Walter.

She’d seen this place before.

Julian could feel the bottom of her stomach plummeting and the all too familiar threat of her vision blacking out. She tamped it down and swallowed the panic before it got much farther, choosing her direction to run with a split second decision.

The sky overhead was pitch black. Not only was the sun missing, but all the stars were too. A dim, eerie light with no discernible source was the only thing keeping them from being totally blind to their surroundings. Julian’s flashlight flickered and died the moment they scrambled out of the barrow, and Walter’s glowing fingers looked like glow-in-the-dark stars that had run out of juice.

“Tell me you know where you’re going!” demanded Walter, right on her heels. The thing from the barrow was still screeching like a crazed siren behind them.

Julian’s breath was visible in the air in front of her, mingling with silvery wisps of fog that clung to the dark trunks of the pines. Something was moving in and around the trees at the corner of her vision, like shadows- not her shadows, she knew somehow. Something else.

The second her light went out she descended in to hysterical laughter. Because of course it would go out. All roads led to her getting swallowed up by darkness or eaten alive. Julian cursed under her breath, exchanging the flashlight for her phone and hoping the blasted thing wasn’t going to die on her too.

“No, Walter! I’m running around in the wild wood hoping we’ll stumble over a goddamned Dairy Queen so I can ask for directions!” shouted Julian, daring to hazard a look over her shoulder. Regret washed over her immediately. Somehow the thing looked even more terrifying trying to run with all those long gangling limbs, and if there were more of them in the trees or something else equally as horrifying… She was going to be sick.

Home. Maybe she didn’t know exactly where she was running, but Julian knew she wanted to go home. Going home required finding something that didn’t belong open and she zeroed in on that feeling and held fast. It wouldn’t seem like a door cracked wide, like the school library being flooded with hundreds of ghosts. This would be something shredded. A jagged tear through a curtain you couldn’t see unless you were facing it the right way.

The creature’s limbs were obviously cumbersome, but it was gaining- until Walter uttered a syllable and a pathetically small ball of fire blazed up around his fist. Another word sent it flying back at their pursuer.

It simply unhinged its horrible mouth again and swallowed the flame whole.

“You twatmongering fucktrumpet,” cursed the witch. He skidded to a halt, his free hand on Julian’s wrist to bring her up short with him.

“Don’t lose my knife,” he told her, holding her eye. “Do you fucking hear me, Jules?! Don’t let it out of your sight.

Walter unwrapped his fingers and summoned another pitiful fireball in his supine palm. He turned back towards the lumbering monstrosity as it clambered over a fallen log.

“Now get the hell out of here,” he called out over his shoulder. “Go!

Why did these jerks always tell her to go on without them?! Julian only hesitated a split second. Just long enough for it to register that this brand of monster could swallow fireballs whole like they were nothing. Yeah, she wasn’t equipped to be anyone’s sidekick in this scenario.

“I’m going to engrave my name on it with GLITTER if you don’t follow me!” The beauty of her threat was ruined by her choking on the words. Unless he wanted his stuff vandalized by a teenage girl, he was going to come back and get it.

She didn’t need to be told twice to keep going, though. Julian ran. Too frantic to keep a leery eye on the trees around her and too fast to suck in more than short icy breaths. The thickness of the fog and a faint sheen of perspiration had strands of her hair clinging to her face and neck. She wiped it away with the edge of her jacket sleeve and reaffirmed her grip on the knife’s hilt.

Walter’s colorful invectives mixed with the sounds of activity and the eerie screaming behind her. When she glanced back, she could just barely make out Walter through the fog. He was drawing the creature’s attention with more balls of flame, tiny pinpricks of orange in the grey and black. He seemed to be leading it in the opposite direction, keeping far closer than Julian thought he should… but always out of reach of the thing’s claws. The noises and shapes faded alike behind her as she raced deeper into the pines.

The further she got, the more she noticed that the woods around her swarmed and swam with movement. Specks of something floated in the air around her; dust, maybe, she thought. As it grew quieter, too, she began to hear more and more of the surrounding environment.

She began to hear the whispers.

…not her….

Yes, a second voice replied. …time…tell her.

The voices were faint. Almost like static on the radio, broken and distorted. She couldn’t tell a gender, couldn’t tell if they were even human.

And the whole time, she felt eyes on her, and even more so felt a distinct though soft tugging at the pendant around her neck. A gentle, chilly current of air blew against her face from one particular direction.

Something small and soft collided with her cheek. Then another, and another, hitting her arms and sticking to her clothes.

The sky was raining ash.

She didn’t know when her pace had slowed. Somewhere between hoping Walter wasn’t about to be a monster snack and rubbing sooty grey specks between her fingers. Julian probably should have known better than to listen to the beckoning of odd whispers. But she still found herself swallowing the heavy lump in her throat and creeping through the trees, following where the wind would displace falling flakes of ash.

“Tell me what?” asked Julian softly, almost unable to hear her own voice over the pounding of her heart. She squinted through the dark, half expecting to see shimmery forms of ghosts lurking around the corners of trees. Yet, it seemed so much more like the vision at the lake where excited shadows wanted to show her things.

…was this where her shadows lived?

She didn’t long to ponder that idea. Up ahead, she caught a glimpse of something white as it flashed between the trees.

Julian, the voices whispered.

Come home.

The sky above her was misty grey. Fog crept along a forest floor littered with pine needles. Out of the corner of her eye, shadows darted between the impossibly tall pines. The bark of the trees was caked white with ash.

The pathway led to a ring of pines even taller than the rest, seven giants that towered up into forever. The top of one of the trees- the one on the far side- was ablaze.

The sound of a twig snapping behind her made her whirl. She backed up against the nearest tree, her fingers finding it warm to the touch. Oddly familiar. It made her think of a leather-bound book, a lit hearth. She could smell juniper bushes when she sucked in her breath.

Someone stepped out of the shadow of the treeline.

It was a girl with long black hair, wearing a long black dress. Something about her face was wrong; it wouldn’t stay put, shifting and swimming until she felt sick. Her garment wasn’t much better. The pitch-dark fabric bled into the shadow she cast on the ground, a shadow much larger than her small frame should have cast.

“It’s you,” she heard herself say. Her voice didn’t tremble.

It’s me, answered the girl. At last we meet.

“Why at last?” she asked sharply. “Have you been looking for me?”

Yes. The girl glided closer. A piece of her dress snagged on a stick; it broke off and melted into a shadowy pool that slithered away and vanished into the undergrowth.

“Why?” Her fingernails bit into the tree, ash crumbling and clumping.

Because. The face twisted, and some of the features seemed to click into place. It was like looking into the mirror from her fairy tale book, distorted and strange, but clearer now. We have an enemy in common, you and I.

Her,” she snarled. “Of course. What’s she done?”

Gone places she shouldn’t, was the reply. Warped eyes blinked at her solemnly. I might have thought you’d know.

“I don’t know everything. She doesn’t… And what, you want me to, to find her for you?”

No. The girl reached out her hand. I want to give you a gift. And in return…

In return, you will give me something when I ask it of you.

“…What do you want from me?” A sense of dread washed over her as she stared into that horrible, shifting face. She knew who she was talking to. She knew the sort of things that this girl- who wasn’t a girl at all- might ask for.

Look into the future, seer, said that dispassionate voice. And then you will see.

After a long, silent moment, she reached out and took the proffered hand…

Julian teetered on her feet. She’d gotten so used to the flashes over the past few weeks that they no longer seemed to physically tip her. That wasn’t the case with this one. Maybe because it felt familiar, personal. Little things stuck out so strongly, that it was hard to tell if they were recognizable because of previous visions or if, by some strange twist, it actually involved herself. The contorted reflection in the living shadow’s face. Black silk and ancient trees. What did that have to do with Julian?

“I don’t know what any of that means.” she whispered just as a faint beep preceded the dimming of light. Julian paled, glancing down at the now blank screen of her phone. The fleeting thought that she really needed a new battery got mixed up with the chorus of panicked cursing in her head. Her gaze shot up towards the sky, hoping to find at least one tiny glimmer of a star somewhere amidst the grey and black. Julian needed her stars.

There was nothing but black, empty sky. Julian was left in darkness. It was hard to tell how much time had passed since she had left Walter and that creature behind; she could no longer hear either of them, only the slow but steady current of hushed whispers in the trees.

Then a crimson disk materialized in the sky, like a great red eye opening its lid, and bathed the woods in a dim red glow.

The whispers turned to screams.


All around Julian, the trees exploded with movement. Shadows, her shadows- hundreds of them- came pouring down out of the treetops, swarming into the undergrowth and towards the girl who stood on the path below.

“But-” She clamped her mouth shut. That couldn’t be the sun she wanted to see. Curiosity was almost begging her to stay put and see what it was that could even make shadows quake. They weren’t afraid of sunlight, Julian knew that much. They feared something worse. But all Julian had was a knife and a dead cellphone. She was woefully unprepared to protect a hoard of frightened Francises.

Turning on her toes she sprinted off, stuffing her phone in to her pocket and shifting Walter’s knife in to her other hand. Where was she supposed to hide? Everything that was once a dull grey was now rusty red, everything except for her shadows who stood out like a blanket of black snowflakes.

“Don’t cluster!” Julian gasped. How many times had she yelled at them to stop huddling up together or piling on top of her and turning her room in to a giant pit of darkness? This wasn’t her room. It wasn’t a safe space. Julian was certain anything with eyes would notice a big pile of shivering shadows here in the woods. They needed to get back home.

“Where’s Walter? Where’s my house!

The shadows milled around her as she ran, winding in and out of the trees around her. One in particular darted between Julian’s ankles like a frantic cat, then took off like a shot down the path.

In her mind’s eye, Julian caught a flash.

A circle of stones piled in a clearing, stained and crumbling. When she peered over the edge, there was a hole.

Running as she was, that vision blinded her to the brambles that blocked her way. She stumbled, her hands flying out to brace against the forest floor.

A blood-curdling, horribly familiar shrieking pierced the air from her left. Long, blackened claws raked the dirt an inch from her arm.

There wasn’t a shadow in sight.

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Vampires Drafts

Blood Moon 010: It Starts With a Letter (Original Draft)

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When Angela got it in her mind to do something, she was not one to halfass it. Leo tasked her to get the book she suspected Julian saw with young David, the one she believed was the very same as Michael’s father’s. A book Michael did not seem to want to let her get her hands on.

But god damn, did she love a good challenge.

Her favorite plan of action to get things from boys was the good old fashioned flirt. This was not going to work on Michael, considering he only barely tolerated her, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be all kinds of entertaining. For one, he was such a stuffy old prude, he couldn’t handle a girl aggressively coming on to him. Julian spent their whole relationship being subconsciously delicate with him, so by the time she started getting handsy he was all scandalized by a brazen hussy. Angela now knew exactly what to do for charming a Victorian gentleman.

Secondly, he knew damn well what her game was. Antagonizing him was now her second favorite thing to do. Michael was most likely going to try and play it cool through the entire thing, until she hit some unpredictable button that inevitably sends him in to a pissed off tizzy. Then he’ll stomp off and leave her with at least a few minutes to stuff that book in her purse and take off.

The presentation all started with her appearance. Once Michael opened the door, that was the first thing he was assaulted with. Her ensemble might have been beautifully classic and understated – if she hadn’t “Angela’ed” it up. The loose white high collared blouse was Victorian inspired for sure, but she went and paired it with cinnamon pink leather pants that looked like they were painted on. To top it off she wore silver glittered peep toe boots. With her high pony-tail, Angela looked as if she had just walked off the set of a modernized Audrey Hepburn flick.

“I hope you don’t have any plans, Mr. Hightower, because we’re totally on a playdate. Oh – read this first!”

Angela thrust a folded letter in to his hands before she pushed past him.

In sparkling gel pen ink was Angela’s curvaceous lettering.

Dearest Michael Hightower,

You are cordially invited to the eve of your very own old fashioned wooing. As with any good wooing, it begins with this written letter of intentions, so that your delicate maiden sensibilities are not scandalized by a sudden seduction. What you can expect this evening includes:

Gratuitous, flowery compliments. Your eyes remind me of a moonless October night; cool, dark, and promising to make a heart skip a beat. It would take a thousand men to match the ocean of your brilliance. Dat ass.

Flirtatious but appropriate touching. All little hand holding, staring wistfully in to each other’s eyes, pretending to trip and landing on your lap when we both know it was on purpose. I’ll probably touch your butt anyway, though. My apologies.

Witty banter and charming conversation. What’s this? Hours of time flying by because we’re absorbed in a common interest? How did I not know that ancient astrophysics and the company of a handsome vampire was going to be my favorite after school activity. Oh Michael, I never knew you could be so fascinating!

In order for this wooing to go over well, the following is required:

Don’t freak out. I promise you’re safe with me, baby, don’t be scared. <3

Don’t bite me. Seriously, I’ve been drinking rose tea and I probably taste as bad as it does.

Don’t kill me. Imagine how annoying I would be as a ghost and remind yourself of that every time you feel murderous.

We will end the night with you completely enchanted and me leaving with several of your books. Why not simply ask to borrow a few books instead of an elaborate seduction, you may be wondering? I like to watch cute boys squirm. And it’s fun. It’s totally fun.

Angela June Mercy

Under the handwritten words at the very corner of the paper was a drawing. It couldn’t have been drawn by Angela herself, because anyone could see by her school notebooks or anything she took a pen to, that her doodling was atrocious. She must’ve taken the time to get someone to draw and color it in for her. A couple stalks of red hyacinth were entwined with blue morning glories. Scribbled next to them with a little arrow was a sentence.

I’m not paying for fresh flowers in the middle of November. Take these.

The farther through the letter he read, the tighter Michael’s grip became on the page and the whiter his lips grew as he pressed them tightly together. As he came to the final doodle, he slammed shut his front door and went stalking down the hall after the source of his aggravation.

He caught her by the arm just as she let herself into his study and spun her around.

“What the hell is this?” he hissed, shaking the offending paper in her face. She couldn’t see his eyes thanks to his sunglasses, and he could not at present decide if that was for the best. “Is this funny to you?”

It took him a moment to realize just how tight he was gripping her arm. Horrified, he let her go so abruptly that she stumbled on her ridiculous heels. Michael curled and uncurled his fingers, swallowing hard. He knew better than to let this girl provoke him, especially now. Didn’t she know-

No. Michael was fine.

“Are you done?” he managed. “Because I thought we were past this.”

For a split second Angela was afraid she might’ve grossly miscalculated her first move in her little chess game. The look hopefully washed off her face when she played off her stumble backwards as an exaggerated, deliberate display of presentation for her next statement.

This, Fangs McCuteface, is intensive therapy.” she started, sticking her tongue out at him before she turned away to mask the silently mouthed ow and rub her hand over her arm. She seriously needed to do something about her delicate straw arms if she was going to keep up with these super-powered jerks.

Shifting farther from him still, she tossed her purse on to his desk, casting the bookshelf only a quick cursory glance to see if she could spot the journal where it should be. Then, Angela turned on her toes to point a finger at him.

“You need to stop hiding here in this stupid house. And I’m guessing you’re not going to leave until you don’t want to bite beautiful blonds and can finally take off those dumb shades. Sooo…!” There went another flourish of her hands along with a few very dramatic poses. Ones she figured mimicked the whole Victorian lady posture. “Here I am! Your Princess Knight here to rescue you, woo you, or dare I even say something so scandalous, but irk you in to a smile!”

“A letter IS how you announce intentions, right? I even signed my middle name and everything.”

Slam went the thing on the other side of the wall.

“Stop,” Michael told her. “This isn’t helping, Angela.”

He brushed invisible dirt from his vest and walked straight past her for the nearest bookshelf. Though his eyes went through the motions of skimming the row of spines for significant titles, he was honestly using it as a pretense.

Get yourself together, he instructed himself silently, reaching out to grip the wooden edge of the case. Inhaling through his nose, he counted backwards from ten the way he’d once practiced long ago… so long ago, so long it felt a lifetime. As if it had happened to some other person. Michael had stopped practicing when he hadn’t needed it anymore.

“Shall we pick up where we left off?” he asked, pushing those thoughts aside and grabbing for the memories of their last Latin lesson. “Or did you want to move on to declension?”

“We could start off with all the different versions of friend.” she quipped back.

Angela allowed him a moment of a breather before she wandered to the bookshelf. She spun around to throw her back against the shelf and sprawl her arms out at weird angles.

“Why must you spurn my affections! Was I supposed to bring candy with the flowers? Because all I got in my purse is a bunch of orange Tic Tacs.” Angela tried to bat her eyelashes at him, but even she couldn’t seem to keep the pretense up long enough for her best come hither stare. Dang, she was going to have to work on her game along with her scrawny arms.

Dropping the act to turn and lean her hip against the dark wood, Angela folded her arms to finally give him a sincere expression.

“It IS helping, you just don’t like it. We can’t just get rid of things we don’t like, we have to deal with them. Otherwise I would’ve chucked half the high school in the lake by now. Do I really have to pout to get you to hang out with me? We can get drunk and play che-eeeess.” She shot him a coaxing smile. The one Julian usually found impossible to say no to.

A crawling sensation spread down Michael’s spine. He stared at her, gut clenching.

“Do you take anything seriously?” he asked. “Friends don’t mock things like… Things like…”

The words to finish the sentence escaped him. With a sudden jolt, he realized that he was still crumpling her insipid letter in one hand; Michael finished balling it up and pushed away from the rows of books, going to toss it in the bin by his desk.

“There is a huuuuuge difference between mocking and teasing. If I wanted to mock you I wouldn’t have wasted three hours drafting that fucking thing and going through seven pages of stationary to get all my loopy capitals perfect.” It was hard not to let at least some offense slip in to her tone. Of course she knew he wasn’t going to like it, but he could have at least appreciated the sheer mastery.

“Don’t you dare-” she cut off just as she made a quick dash forward to snatch the crumbled wad in his hands, “You can’t just throw away my MASTERPIECE while I’m standing right here. Rude.” Michael received a scathing glare as she pried it open again and then tried to flatten it out on his desk with a pen plucked out of a container.

Then, to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere, she grabbed a couple books off the shelf to pile on top of the letter. Angela made sure her randomly selected choices were close in size and shape to the object of her mission.

“I AM taking this seriously,” she finally said while holding up her two pointer fingers. “We’re going to bond and shit! What did you do back when you came a callin’ on old school hotties? I’m still down for rich guy’s bourbon and chess.”

Unbidden, an image bubbled up in Michael’s mind’s eye: a girl spread out on the floor at an unnatural angle, her eyes wide and glassy. Her blond hair was a tangled mess on the tile, matted with blood and bits of china.

Michael began to shake.

“Don’t laugh at me,” he bit out, blinking against the superimposed vision of those eyes, that hair. It was only Angela. He was in his study. He was under control.

“This is hardly a real date, so what does it matter?” Michael went on suddenly, adjusting his sunglasses. “If this is how you think you act on a date, I-”

I pity Caleb Whelan, he’d nearly said. He had to clamp his hand over his mouth to keep it in.

No no no, he chanted. He wasn’t going to do this. Michael wasn’t this person.

“Do I LOOK like I’m laughing at you? Uuugh! Julian is so much easier to get out of a funk! Hugs, food, and music then she’s done!”

For the first time since she shoved her way in to his house, Angela straightened up and actually looked at him. A slow examining stare taking in every little detail she could get. Though she hated his stupid sunglasses, the vest was sharp. He’d stepped up his wardrobe game after All Saint’s Day. That probably meant something, but she filed it away for later. She was more concerned with the fact he was still struggling to control his eat you impulses.

“Michael, I was one hundred percent sincere about helping you with your toothy bite-bite problem. Maaaaybe, I went a tad over board with the superfluous flattery,” she admitted sheepishly. “But I like grandiose bullshit and I’m pretty sure you do too. Or you would if you weren’t determined to hate me for being awesome.”

Normally right about there she’d get pissed off an offended, but she was determined not to run out of the house in a fury. Still, the annoyance was coming through when she rested her hands on her hips.

“This is a PLAY date, not a DATE date. My idea of a date involves expensive dinner, jewelry, and a hell of a lot of kissing. So unless you want to go cook me an awesome dinner not made of people, you better agree to something fun.”

“Your idea of fun and mine are vastly different,” he answered from behind his hand.

Michael closed his eyes. Ten, nine, eight…

“Alright,” he told her, his fingers falling against his side. “Not chess. Do you even like chess?”

Even if she did, Michael wasn’t in the right mindset. As… prone to distraction as he was just now, she would easily beat him, he was forced to grudgingly admit. If only to himself. No, they could play another time, when Michael was himself again. Likely without the bourbon.

Although a drink to calm his nerves was perhaps not a bad idea.

“…How do you take your bourbon?”

Though Angela mourned her chance at a drunken chess game with Michael, she couldn’t be mad at the consolation prize of bourbon and books. Especially the kind of bourbon that looked, smelled, and tasted like it was worth more than all the designers clothes in Margrit’s closet. As for the books… that was exactly where Angela needed to be.

Choosing something was another argument itself. Angela refused to do lessons; lessons were fun but they weren’t the kind of fun she wanted to orchestrate. She could have easily picked anything, but her procrastination was aimed at finding one book in particular. The journal was not sitting on the shelf where she last saw it, which meant it could have been squirreled away anywhere. If she couldn’t find it here in the study, Leo was going to have to find it himself. There was no way in hell she was going to prowl around alone in this creepy vampire infested house. No matter HOW much she wanted to go through all the stuff in it.

Eventually she found an old volume that looked too interesting to pass up. And because Michael wasn’t going to get away with choosing books, thinking she’d just read in silence without bothering him, Angela took to reading it out loud. He got to be tormented with her none-too-shabby speaking skills, except for those moments she got too invested and would blurt out her complaints at characters who would never hear her.

Somewhere along the way of reading aloud, pausing to sip from her glass of bourbon, and pacing his study, she’d kicked off her shoes and dropped comfortably on the tiny couch.

“This is insane.” she exclaimed again between one of the paragraphs, leaning over to set her glass back down. Though the way she said it, insane might have been a compliment.

Michael had wedged himself into one corner of the couch, which left him neatly trapped when she hogged up the rest of it. He stiffened when she first sat down, but otherwise made no sign of acknowledging the encroachment. Ever since she began her read-aloud he’d been unusually quiet. At least, until…

“I used to do this with Leo,” he said, turning his highball glass in his hands. It wasn’t his first drink of the night. He’d had a bit more than was general practice for a bourbon that nice, but he was a vampire after all. He probably couldn’t feel it.

“He likes that one,” he went on, nodding at the book in her lap. “Or he used to.”

“I knew it. That smug mother fucker is a dork.”

Seeing his comment as an opportunity for a break, Angela set the book aside with her glass. She took a moment roll her head and shoulder until she worked out all the little cracks and pops. Then up went her arms as she straightened out her back. Once Angela was done with that, she plopped back against the sofa cushion, deliberately a couple inches closer and with that I’m-not-touching-you smile.

“It’s a good one though, so at least he has taste. I used to read for Julian too, up until I got in to horror and I read her one too many tales of terror before bedtime. Totally not sorry.” Angela shifted, turning in his direction and pulling up a leg to sit on. Her invasion of his personal space forgotten. “Did you do the reading or was it Leo? My bet is on the big-mouth being all dramatic as fuck with weird voices and shit.”

“Also, just fair warning and all, I’m about to take those damn sunglasses. I’m super pretty tonight, but I’m sick of looking at my own reflection.”

“He did the reading,” Michael murmured, and this time he did draw further into the arm of the couch when she moved. “Voices and all.”

Her next comment garnered an even greater reaction. One hand tightened around the glass, the other flying up to hold the shades in place by one arm. He’d gone tense again. Almost flinched, even.

“You are not,” he insisted. “I want to wear them.”

Angela really wanted to know more about Leo’s weird voices, if only because they still had a future play-date of trolling goth-kids that she was not going to let him forget. But now that Michael was protecting his sunglasses with his whole damn arm, Angela was having to stomp down her perfectly natural girl-instinct to try and wrestle them off his face. If Michael had any idea he’d just pulled the classic modern flirt-bait, he’d probably be mortified.

Fuck, she couldn’t help it.

“Soooo did you want me to wrestle those away from you? ‘Cause I’m not about to make you spill perfectly good bourbon. In fact, I’mma go ahead and get this out of the way.” With a surprising amount of delicacy she placed the fingers of one hand under the glass and with her other hand used her thumb and pointer to grip the lip. She didn’t pull it yet. There was just enough pressure to let him know her hands were there without her actually touching him.

“Let it goooo. And take them off. Seriously, I’ve already seen the scary stuff and I haven’t been torturing you. It’s time to relaaaaax. Tell me if you can fence or ride a horse. It’s very important for my research.”

The bourbon glass pulled gently but steadily against her fingers. Apparently he didn’t care to spill it either.

“Don’t you dare,” he hissed. “I’m not taking them off. Leave me alone.”

Setting the glass down on the end table, Michael swiftly grabbed Angela’s hand. His grip was ginger, like he was reluctant to even touch her enough to trap her offending fingers. His skin was like ice and the temptation to make Edward Cullen jokes would have been strong had she not already asked Julian about that and learned that Michael usually had perfectly normal circulation.

“You’ve seen nothing,” he continued. “You have no idea. I don’t want you to and if you had an ounce of manners-”

“If I had manners,” she interjected. “You do know it’s rude as fuck to wear sunglasses indoors, right? I just want to see those October eyes while we’re having a conversation, and here you are acting like I’m trying to get your clothes off.”

Angela couldn’t help the humor in her voice now. She got it, she really did. He was using the stupid things to hide behind and he didn’t trust her. But they needed to start somewhere and this was the perfect first step. If he would just cooperate.

“You asked for this, Michael.” she tried to warn him, shifting on the couch so she was on one knee and a foot on the floor so she could run like hell if he actually tried to fight for them. Very carefully she reached for the sunglasses. “You the need help and a friend! Just remember: Don’t freak out. Don’t bite me. Don’t kill me. I’m juuuuust taking the shades.”

Without warning or any hesitation she grabbed for them, hoping he remembered she was full of vampire poison and that breaking her neck would start the Julian version of Ragnarok.


Michael’s fingers closed around hers just as she caught hold of the shades. For a few brief moments they grappled with the glasses, and maybe he’d had more to drink than she’d thought because he was moving far more sluggishly than he should have been. Angela shouldn’t have stood a chance in a wrestling match with a vampire. But somehow she managed to hang on to the sunglasses, right up to the point where Michael tried to pry her fingers off and she clamped down stubbornly, and…


The bridge of the shades broke cleanly in half. One of the lenses toppled down between them on the couch; the other dropped onto the hardwood floor and shattered.

The room went eerily silent.

When her eyes found Michael’s, they were the same dilated onyx disks in a bloodshot milky white that she remembered from the last time she’d seen him without the shades. The bags under his eyes were worse, giving his wide, wild stare a haunted cast. He was looking at Angela like he’d never seen her before.

“You bitch,” swore Michael, his voice shaking in fury. “Fuck you!

In the next second, he had tackled her flat onto her back on the couch, his hands tightening on her shoulders. They were practically bumping noses now as he hovered over her, his eyes flicking down at her throat and back up again, his entire frame vibrating with barely-restrained aggression. He twitched, biting into his bottom lip until it went white.

“You-” he began again, his thumb shifting on her arm. “I…”


“Muie!!” It would’ve been nice if her mental curse had made it to her mouth instead of the frightened, mangled squeak of what was probably meant to be his name that slipped out instead. Angela wasn’t a squeaker! She was an intelligent, feisty bombshell who could take on the world. …unfortunately, her brain didn’t want to remember that. Her brain was too busy running comparisons between him and Leo. When Leo had his cold emotionless moment she’d been scared, but deep down she was confident he had control and wouldn’t actually hurt her.

Michael did not have control. Michael had already lost his shit with Julian more than once. Angela was NOT Julian; she was well aware that Michael’s opinion of her was pretty shitty. And now that she was running through every instance where she’d pissed him off, Angela knew she probably hadn’t helped by deliberately being a pain in his ass. The chances of him having the same self restraint with her was next to non-existent.

It figured the one time she genuinely wasn’t trying to be an asshole, she would finally put the last nail in her own coffin.

I didn’t mean to!” she managed to spit out. Angela didn’t move an inch. She wanted to, even tried to will her arms to shift so she could maybe try to gently push him back and then roll her way off the couch to run away to safety. But the only thing that wanted to move was her heart trying to explode itself out of her chest. She couldn’t even tear her eyes away from him to squeeze them shut.

Fuck, why was she suddenly remembering twenty quotes about man’s arrogance right now?! She was going to die!

“I am sorry,” she stressed, her voice still pitched high. “I didn’t- Hrm. Breaking stuff was not the plan- Helping, I was just- Just kill me before you eat me, Michael! I don’t want it to hurt!”

“Close your eyes,” he told her, low and tight. When she didn’t immediately obey, a shudder ran through him; in the next moment he’d unglued his fingers from one of her shoulders and covered her eyes himself. His hand shut out the dim light of the study.

For a minute he hung there, his breath coming a little too fast and ragged. She could feel it hot against her cheek, smell the bourbon in it. When she listened carefully he was counting aloud in something too quiet to be a whisper. There was a frenzied desperation in the numbers as he rattled off and down from ten.

When he hit zero, his forehead dropped against hers. It wasn’t entirely reassuring. He was still twitching, his finger muscles taut and unyielding.

“I hate you,” Michael hissed abruptly. “I hate you, I hate you, I-”

He cut himself off when his mouth pressed clumsily against hers.

It was nice of him to cover her eyes before she got murdered, she thought. But it made it a million times worse. Because now she was trying to be aware with all of her other senses and that was a recipe for horror. He was going to break her neck. He was going to rip her throat out. He was… counting down from ten? To WHAT? To WHEN he was going to kill her?!

Angela tensed the second the count was over and his confession of hatred fell against her skin. She braced her whole body for the sharp stab of teeth, the snapping of her neck, the ripping of her arms off. Ready for the torrents of pain and hopefully a quick death. Briefly she wondered if her Dad would ever get married again and have another kid. She hoped so. That was a sad last thought to have.

She sure as hell hadn’t been ready for Michael’s mouth to be on hers, nor did she count on her reaction to it. Angela gave a muffled sound of surprise. Kissing him back was reflexive. Somewhere between mindless relief she wasn’t getting strangled and pure automatic surprise. What the fuck. For a good three seconds her whole brain shut down.

Then slowly, sense started to return again. The shock hadn’t completely erased the fear, but Angela was now able to will her limbs to move. She pressed the palm of her hand very tentatively against his shoulder with the slightest of pressure.

The sound she got in response was almost… pained. Like she’d punched him instead of a gentle touch. Michael’s grip on her tightened; he seemed to seize up, going rigid.

His hand fell away from her face to brace himself against the couch, his fingers digging into the leather until his knuckles turned white. She could see his expression now and it was no wonder Michael was so desperate to keep those glasses on, because she could read everything in his face even with his eyes screwed shut.

He’d gone splotchy, like his cheeks were trying to be flushed and to drain of color at the same time. His eyebrows had gone up and drawn together, his skin taut around his eyes. His breath hitched every time Angela so much as moved a muscle.

Michael wasn’t angry- at least, not anymore. Michael was freaking out.

When he moved again, the kiss was different. Angela had seen Michael plant kisses on Julian more than she cared to think about, and they were always very careful and slow and oddly methodical. Right here and now, he was anything but. The initial clumsiness of his first attempt was gone; now he was just being sort of rough. He kissed her hard enough to bruise and then before she knew it his tongue was in her mouth along with the faint taste of liquor.

Michael kissed her like he was starved for it.

She jolted, making another startled sound as she tensed again and her hand gripped in to the fabric at his shoulder. Angela tried to press the pause button- attempted to get some kind mental process going and figure out what the hell what going on and what she thought she was doing. Absolutely nothing was working.

Angela could almost see those same thoughts in his face; that he was just as freaked out as she was. How the fuck that made a difference, she had now idea. Even though there was still that undercurrent of being terrified, something about it turned her fear it some weird sort of fascination.

Bewildered, she squirmed- not a lot, she was still afraid the slightest movement would be a bad idea- just enough to shift her legs and unlock her frozen muscles before they started to ache. Angela tilted her head, with the intent to ease some of the pressure of being pressed down in to the couch cushion, maybe even to pull away, but…

Why, why was she doing this. There was no logical SANE reason for it. Angela just couldn’t seem to help it. Her hand slowly uncurled from his shirt, the tips of her fingers brushing cautiously over his cheek before her palm splayed warm against his skin. Kissing him further was definitely not the plan, but the almost timid testing movement of her lips were a soft contrast to his. All her dumb thoughts about what kissing Michael would be like did not match up to the reality.

His skin was equally warm to the touch. He jerked at first when she laid her hand on his cheek, but then seemed to relax into it, drawing shuddering breath against her lips.

Michael’s hand withdrew from the couch and pressed against Angela’s stomach, fingers spreading wide against the fabric of her blouse. It almost felt like he was steadying himself, but there was a part of it too that felt like he was trying to hold her in place.

And all the while he was kissing her. Apparently vampires didn’t have to come up for air if they didn’t want to. It seemed like Michael was determined to get his tongue into every corner of her mouth, and he wasn’t wasting time about it either. There was something strangely familiar about the raw sensation of want he was conveying, the way she just got swept along in the onslaught the moment he dropped his guard and the floodgates opened…

Fuck. He kissed like Caleb.

Well, fuck. Fuck and damn.

Suddenly she understood all too well about Julian’s kissy-face drama. Because this couldn’t possibly be good, or the right thing to do, or going to go anywhere sane. But no one had kissed her like they WANTED to in so long, that her stupid teenage libido was stronger than her awareness that this was Michael and it was only two minutes ago that he looked like he was going to EAT her.

Kind of like that douchebag at Envy, but Michael actually did it better. How the FUCK.

Angela just gave up. She did try to stop. Sort of. She managed to wiggle her other arm between them and grasp his face with her second hand. There was just the slightest bit of pressure of her thumbs against his cheeks, and she really did intend to push his head back. Except that turned in to gentle touching, a confused audible sigh, and caving in to the curious urge to see what happened when she got her tongue involved too.

It’s not like it could get worse. She was already screwed.

What happened when she got her tongue involved, it turned out, was Michael making a noise in the back of his throat that vibrated into her mouth and right down to her toes. His fingers curled in her blouse briefly before he actually yanked it so hard the buttons came free of their holes, exposing her stomach and just a peek of her bra.

One of the buttons fell off and bounced on the wooden floor, the sound echoing through the study as it rolled away on its side.

Michael’s eyes snapped open.

He stared at her, frozen mid-kiss, his eyes glazed and his pupils still dilated six ways to Sunday. He pulled back just enough for their lips to part ways, his fingers absently stroking along her newly bare abdomen. If Angela didn’t know better, she’d say he looked dazzled. It wasn’t long before he dove back in to place a heavy open-mouthed kiss just under her jawline.

And then suddenly it was all over.

Choking, Michael threw himself backward so hard and so fast that he was a blur. He went crashing against the bookcases, the contents spilling down around him. If he hadn’t thrown his arms up to cradle his head, at least one volume would have beamed him right over his skull. He didn’t seem to care; he was pressed as flat as he could go and shaking like a leaf.

“I- I-” he rasped, wheezing. “Don’t.

Angela sat up quickly, her back ramrod straight as fussed with trying to get her shirt back where it belonged. She missed a hole and there was no telling where the lost button landed. Smoothing her hair back in to her Hepburn pony tail took little effort, since that didn’t get mussed, but when she ran her fingers over her mouth that kissed crazy feeling was still lingering.

Fuck! Just. Fuck!

When she stood, she probably looked like she was getting to bolt right out the door. Her hands were shaking as she ran them over the front of her jeans. Now that she wasn’t pinned down by a crazy vampire, her head was finally getting back in the game.

Okay, so that was hot as shit.


But I wasn’t a snack. That was progress for Mister Psycho Hot-face.

Ooooh fuuuuuck if Leo finds out, he’ll never forgive me.

Without saying a word, Angela tip-toed across the room until she found where she’d abandoned each one of her shoes, snatched them up, and then quietly started sneaking towards the study door. As if he couldn’t see her. Like she was creeping away from a secret rendezvous before the parent showed up. Before she could cross the threshold, she turned around quickly. Holding both her glittery heels up and squeezing her eyes shut as she talked to him.

Angela just couldn’t look at him right now without turning scarlet. Shit, she was probably already flushed.

“…good job!” …and that made it worse. Because instead of shouting it out as obnoxious and loud as possible, it sounded like she still hadn’t caught her breath. She cleared her throat and continued in a much stronger voice. “Ya didn’t kill me- Not exactly how I planned Best Friend Therapy to go, but y’know, skipping about thirty steps is cool too, whatever. We’ll just pretend like that didn’t happen.”

She finally opened one eye to peek at him.

“I’m going home. Unless you want me to stay and pick up books and stash a few in my purse. I’ll be back though. Another time.”

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White Night

White Night 03: Don’t Trust Leo

A bunch of nerds bogarted Angela’s favorite picnic table. On any other day, such an imposition on the special spot that she shared with her bestie would have earned those kids a major ass-kicking with her fancy heels. (Or at least she’d have annoyed them into leaving.) Lucky for them, Angela was dining alone today. …The only trouble was that Julian was still supposed to MEET Angela first for an afternoon briefing. Angela was dying to get the details on Julian’s study date with Michael.

She really hoped that Julian wasn’t late because she’d had another one of her freaky dreams. It was plain to see that Julian was in trouble. Even before the girl’s parents went missing, weird things were happening, things that Julian didn’t seem to remember. Angela just… didn’t know what to do. If she admitted her concerns, Julian would flip. Julian was hurting. She was traumatized. The last thing she needed was for her best friend to start crying that she was terrified of what might happen.

She couldn’t say anything. Not until she could do something about it.

Glancing at the time on her phone for the sixth time in… four minutes… Angela tapped her foot against the paved walkway outside of the school where she stood waiting for Julian to emerge. She hated not knowing why Julian was late. Maybe Angela’s mothering was a little over the top, but under the circumstances, who else did Julian have to look out for her? Her social worker? Her therapist? They weren’t around for the day-to-day stuff.

Angela knew what it was like to lose a parent. She and her dad would have crashed and burned if it weren’t for Julian and her family. Julian was Angela’s lifeline, and now it was her turn to be there for Julian.

Y’know, if she could find the dummy.

Maybe Julian had just gotten impatient and ran off to meet her new beau a little early. While she still had the phone out, Angela sent a probing text. Another minute went by with no reply. So she tried a second one. Before she knew it, two texts had turned into nine and the first half of lunch was already gone.

This was not going to fly. She at least deserved the courtesy of a “shut up angela”. Angela stomped back inside and headed right for the school library to give Julian a piece of her mind.

But there was no Julian to be found. Michael, on the other hand, was right where she expected him to be. He’d parked himself at one of the small round study tables that filled the library’s lower floor, his fancy leather satchel taking up the chair across from him; obviously he was saving Miss No-Show a seat. There was an open book on the table in front of him.

Angela narrowed her eyes. He was once again dressed way, way too well for a high school Junior. Maybe he was so rich that he’d hired a personal valet to do his shopping and lay out his fancy clothes, Angela decided. The thought would’ve made her laugh if she weren’t more concerned with her missing friend.

She dropped into the empty seat at his left side and propped her elbows on the table.

“So I guess Julian has not only ditched ME for lunch, she doesn’t even have the decency to be studying with her new boyfriend instead. That’s cold. I feel for ya.” The teasing look she gave him quickly vanished as she got to the point. “Have you seen her? She was late to school, which, y’know, is not a big deal all by itself. But usually she at least meets me in the courtyard and she’s not answering any of my texts.”

At first, all she got was a blank stare. It was a little offensive, to be perfectly honest; did he seriously not recognize her? She knew he spent most of his time in their English class staring long and deep into Julian’s eyes from across the room, but they had actually been properly introduced at Fleetwood Macchiato.

Then his lips curved into a stiff smile, and it clicked. Ohhh. He was just cranky for the exact same reasons that she was.

“So you don’t know where she is, either,” he said flatly.

“Julian is pretty predictable, most of the time. So it’s weird as hell that she’s not here and is actually ditching both of us. I thought for sure she’d be here with you.”

She watched as he took a deep breath and sank back into his seat, smoothing a hand over the front of his sweater. Damn, was that thing Merino wool? It looked really soft. (The closest Angela had ever come to Merino was while rifling through Margrit’s closet, but she knew what it was, thank you very much.) It also looked warm, which was good—his coat was nowhere in sight, and the school library was notoriously drafty. Even now a slight current of air was blowing past their table, carrying a spicy scent that must have been Michael’s aftershave. The guy was lucky she wasn’t putting her hands all over him, because a sweater like that was begging to be touched. She was willing to throw down money that he chose it for that exact reason. It was the perfect innocent excuse for a girl to get her hands on a dude. Oldest trick in the book, but a flawless classic.

Angela leaned into his space, her sudden smile perfectly casual. Underneath she was surreptitiously testing him out. Julian had crushed hard and fast on this guy. She needed to know why, unless it was just the dreamy intense eyes. Not that Julian usually gushed about hot guys. As corny as it sounded, Julian was sincerely one of those people who was more impressed with what a guy said and did than what he looked like. But while Julian effortlessly saw hidden potential with a glance, Angela had to dig for it. And she was starting to find out that Michael was buried deep.

As much as she tried to dangle the bait, though, Michael wasn’t biting. He stayed almost motionless in his chair even while she shamelessly invaded his personal space. All he did was reach over to close the weighty textbook in front of him, his hand smoothing over the glossy cover. Angela immediately recognized the book; it was the same one she used for her Gothic Lit elective. Michael must have been slotted during another period, because Angela hadn’t seen him in Ms. Audoire’s classroom.

It was the perfect opportunity for a little genuine bonding. Angela pointed a ringed finger.

“I love that class. It’s my fifth period.”

“You like the classics?” he asked, and this time the smile was more genuine. “It’s my third period. I’m looking forward to moving beyond Poe and on to something a little more substantial. The Raven is all well and good, but The Portrait of Dorian Gray is more my style.”

Angela was instantly ready to throw down an entire speech about the narcissism of Dorian Gray and the drawbacks to immortality, but then she remembered why she’d come here. Nerd bonding would have to wait.

“If you ever want to collaborate on a paper with someone who won’t space out and wander into oblivion, I’m available!” she told him, straightening up in her seat. “Buuuuut, in the meantime, I’ve gotta go make sure Julian’s not dead in a bathroom somewhere because she wandered a little too far.”

“I don’t think you’ll find her there,” said Michael. His lips pressed together into a thin, worried line. He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and set it face-up on the table, sliding it across the wooden surface to Angela. There was a text message pulled up on the screen.

Taking your girlfriend for flying lessons. Don’t worry, I won’t bite. 😘 Turning my phone off now!
LEO @ 11:03am

Angela snatched his phone up off the table with a dumbfounded stare. At first she didn’t quite get it, but the moment she realized the sender was listed as Leo, things became clear.

Wait. No they fucking didn’t. What the hell was Julian doing playing hooky with Leo? The girl never skipped school. …Okay, sometimes she did, but almost never on purpose. It was always Angela’s idea. Now she was off on an adventure in truancy with Michael’s leather-clad badboy cousin? Without her?

“Uh, what the hell is this bullshit? He’s cute and all, but last I checked Julian’s play date was with YOU. Did your cousin kidnap my best friend?” she demanded, alarm creeping into her voice. She wagged the phone at him. “‘Cause I can get Sheriff Polk to show up just about anywhere in ten minutes flat.”

“I have a better idea.” Michael pushed himself up from the table and grabbed the phone straight out of her hand. It returned to his jeans pocket as he started gathering up his stuff. “Let’s go find them.”

Angela rose from her seat and… Damn. Even with her heels on she wasn’t quite as tall as Michael. It was easy to forget just how tall he really was until he stood up. He must have been at least six foot, maybe a little more—same as Leo. If Julian had really run off into the sunset with Michael’s cousin, Angela was going to have to start giving her so much shit about collecting dudes who outstripped her by the better part of a foot. Once upon a time Julian had the height advantage between the two of them, but by fifth grade the girl had stopped growing entirely. Angela, meanwhile, kept right on going. And going. When you towered over most of the boys your age, it kind of sucked, especially if you had a taste for fashionable high heels.

“He’s not going to hurt her,” Michael was saying, back on planet earth. “I wouldn’t let him within three feet of Julian if I thought he would. But I’m fairly certain that whatever he has in mind is going to end badly. It always does. He never thinks anything through. He simply does whatever he wants with no consideration for how it affects the people around him, and it’s generally just to spite me.”

These guys were family, alright. Angela was an only child and so was her best friend, but she’d seen the way her other friends bickered with their siblings. No one was this good at annoying you unless you were close. Underneath the cool exterior, Michael Hightower was definitely ticked off. He was trying to hide it, but Angela could still see the telltale tightness in his jaw. That was a sign of either annoyance, jealousy, or worry.

Angela really hoped it wasn’t worry.

“Well then, tall-dark-and-handsome. Count me in on this caper.” Digging into the massive black hole that she called a purse, Angela fetched her own phone. Julian received one last warning.

The Smolder and I are coming after you, you little delinquent. I hope you’re doing something bad, or I’mma be very disappointed.
YOU @ 11:37am

“So. Sounds like you have a great big hate-boner for your trouble-making cousin. Is he the black sheep of the family?” Casting a wide grin over her shoulder, she led the way towards the double glass doors that led out of the library.

“I…” Michael sighed. He looked away, the irritation fading away into something more akin to… resignation. “I don’t hate him. I’m afraid it’s more the other way around.”

Curious. There had to be more juicy details to this story, Angela was certain. So far: Guy meets girl. Girl crushes on guy. Girl meets guy’s cousin, and suddenly she’s off with that dude? It didn’t make sense, even if Angela factored in Julian’s penchants for instantly making friends and occasionally spacing out.

Angela’s legs were long, but Michael’s were longer. He overtook her almost immediately before dropping back to match her pace. She wasn’t the only one curious either. He was giving her a measuring sort of look when he thought she wasn’t paying attention.

“My car or yours?” fished Angela. “Assuming you have one.”

“I have a car,” he said mildly, pulling a keychain out of his pocket and holding it aloft. It was shaped a bit like a belt loop, black with chrome trim and sporting an emblem of little silver wings. The attached key looked older, but it bore a matching insignia on the broad black plastic bow. It was shaped funky. Like a fat-handled screwdriver. Or… What was that spiky-looking tool that people used to punch holes in leather? An awl?

“Rich guy car. Oh, we’re definitely taking the rich guy car.” Angela didn’t know shit about cars outside of what was needed to keep up with her own Precious, but she DID recognize an expensive label when she saw it. Maybe if she was especially adorable, Michael would even let her drive.

Her wicked Cheshire grin lasted all the way to the student parking lot.

The second she spotted the old silver Aston Martin, straight out of an ancient James Bond movie, she burst into raucous laughter. Of course. Merino wool sweaters and a classic car that matched his iPhone case. Michael was shaping up to be the very picture of a wealthy douchebag.

Several cars down, Angela spied Margrit chatting with a couple of her fellow cheerleaders. When she spotted Angela strolling along beside Michael Hightower, her jaw nearly hit the asphalt. Angela gave her the biggest shit-eating grin in her arsenal and flipped her the finger. The mixture of confusion and offense on Margrit’s face was officially the best thing she’d seen all day.

“How was your study date, by the way?” the devious blonde asked, returning her attention to Michael. “Julian and I didn’t really get to talk about it last night. I was too busy trying to make her agree to a dance class.”

“Enlightening,” Michael answered after a beat. He furrowed his eyebrows.

Without further explanation of that loaded statement, Michael made a beeline for the Aston Martin. Instead of getting in on the driver’s side, though, he circled around and opened up the passenger door. For a second it looked like he might actually be letting Angela live out her fantasy of driving a Bond car after all… but then she realized he was holding the door for her.

The boy was old-school. Angela was starting to get an idea of what it was about Michael that had Julian swooning. There weren’t a lot of guys their age that could pull off the whole gentleman thing. The ones who weren’t smug dicks came off as trying too hard. But Michael… Michael was kind of flawless.

And so was his car, holy shit. It had to cost more than her house. The interior of the car was as impressive as the outside. The upholstery was much newer than the rest of it; it was leather, probably Italian leather knowing this guy, and it still had that new leather smell. It was dyed grey to match the silver exterior. Angela was beginning to sense a theme.

It was also pristine. Most guys their age practically lived in their car, but Michael clearly took incredibly good care of this thing. She ran a finger over the spotless leather, hoping that Margrit was still back there letting her imagination run wild. Angela certainly was. This was the kind of car she dreamed about. These dreams involved fancy dinner dates and making out in the back seat.

“I’m not trying to worry you,” Michael was saying as he started the car. “If it’s any relief, Leo thinks he’s helping. He’s just… doing it in the way he knows will most annoy me.”

“If that’s all, there’s nothing to worry about. Julian puts up with me and Margrit all the time. One annoying asshole won’t be a problem.” She flashed him a wide smile. “Not that we shouldn’t hunt them down anyway. She’s violating our Don’t Vanish agreement.”

Setting her monstrous purse next to her feet, Angela went straight for the radio. Her hand hesitated for just a second when she realized there were a lot of buttons. It too was much newer than the rest of the car, installed in what had probably once been an empty spot in front of the gear shift. And damned if she didn’t feel like her peasant fingers shouldn’t be touching something so expensive. A chance to play with such a nice sound system was irresistible, though, and she was curious to see what sort of music he listened to.

He had one of those revolving CD players, it looked like, because CD3 popped up on the display when the radio came to life. A song picked up where it had left off. It was one Angela knew, vaguely, but that was about as old as the car was for sure.

Jesus, was that Elvis? Thanks to Julian, Angela’s taste in music included some classics and a little variation outside of her preferred dance-pop, but it was difficult to take Elvis Presley seriously. Great-grandmas and elitist music nerds listened to Elvis, not high school teenagers.

“…I do have newer things to listen to,” he told her, doubtless in response to whatever face she was making. He reached over to lower the volume. The sound quality was crystal clear, that much was true. “If you’re not fond of any of the disk selection, I have an iPod and a USB drive.”

Angela definitely took the opportunity to scour through his stuff. Not that there was much to look at when the Aston Martin was so tidy. One noteworthy item was that the car, of course, was manual. There were actually a fair number of manual cars in Silent Pines, since families tended to hang onto cars forever, but Angela was one of the few people her own age who actually drove stick. It was one thing to own a classic car, but another thing entirely to drive it. Especially since this guy clearly had the money to get any automatic car he wanted, or even to convert the transmission. That was stupid expensive. She’d checked.

Meanwhile Michael backed the car up out of its parking space and then pulled smoothly out of the lot. His eyes slid over to Angela with a disapproving frown as they hit the main road.

“Put on your seatbelt,” he suggested, despite the fact that he wasn’t wearing one either.

Angela was still making weird faces about Elvis, even as she buckled in with a soft click. It was probably the only reason why she didn’t call him out for the hypocrisy.

“Is vanishing a common occurrence?” he asked.

“Julian lives on another planet. She gets distracted and ends up halfway across town.” She hesitated for a moment, not sure if she should explain exactly why she wasn’t keen on losing track of Julian. Angela didn’t know how much the pair had gotten to know each other in their enlightening conversation.

“Has she told you much about herself?” she asked outright.

Unfortunately Michael’s expression didn’t give much away. He seemed entirely focused on driving, not glancing her way even when she started cycling through the CDs in the player and fiddling with his radio. He hadn’t been lying that his musical taste had a little more range, but he definitely seemed to have a thing for acoustic and piano. The other CDs he had in rotation included Ed Sheeran, Bastille, the Beatles, and Coldplay.

“Not too much,” he admitted over the opening chords of The Scientist. “We’ve mostly discussed history. …And our families.”

There was something in his tone that felt a little off, a crack in that outer shell. His dark eyes finally met hers for a brief moment before they were back on the road ahead.

“Any idea where she might wander?” he continued. “Leo doesn’t wander so much as deliberately make himself unavailable. I’ve thought about tracking the GPS on his phone, but I’ve been told that’s considered stalking.”

If it hadn’t been for the slight curve of his mouth, she might have thought he was serious. His delivery was utterly dry.

“Hmm. I’d do the GPS thing on Julian but she pitches a fucking fit about people touching her phone.” Nothing was more valuable than their phones these days. That was something the girls agreed on. Although Angela hadn’t expected Julian to actually turn up missing again. Otherwise she WOULD have put a damn tracking app on her phone. She hadn’t accounted for hot boys.

“Wherever they are, they’re not at our place. I checked in with home already.” For all that Michael wasn’t concerned with a seat belt, he was a careful driver. Maybe a little too careful for Angela’s taste. What kind of grandpa drove the actual speed limit? Then again, it was a classic car… “What else does she like to do? Anywhere she particularly likes to go? With friends.”

Was that a hint of eagerness she detected?

“Why Mikey, are you fishing for information on my totally cute and very single best friend?” Angela didn’t hold back her grin or her sudden bout of laughter. He was pretty good at keeping a straight face, but between giving Julian the smolder-eyes in class and bristling about his cousin running off with her, it was pretty obvious Michael was at least a little interested.

“She likes coffee, food, books… But since she’s out and about with Mister Unavailable, there’s no telling,” Angela admitted with a shrug of her shoulders, leaning a little in his direction with a sly smile. “You know, it’s been a long time since Julian has gone out and done stuff without me literally dragging her. That was before you came around. What are your intentions with my bestie? Should I be concerned?”

“Nothing dubious,” he answered at once. “My intentions may be less scholarly than I’ve implied, but I’m not the one you should be worried about.”

Judging by the turn he took, Michael seemed to have decided that heading downtown was the best place to start looking for her friend and his cousin. It wasn’t a bad call; after all, both the coffee shop and the library were down that way—two of Julian’s favorite haunts, and the places she’d already met Michael besides. Downtown was a pretty reasonable destination for any truant teenager. Silent Pines didn’t have much going for it.

Still grinning ear to ear, Angela peered out the window. Maybe she’d catch her brunette friend strolling down the sidewalk with a hottie in a leather jacket.

“Lucky for you, I am THE top authority on everything Julian. For example, she’d rather walk everywhere than get her license. And if she says that’s my fault, she sucks.”

The process of Angela earning her license had involved a whole lot of scaring her dad and Julian to death. It was Julian’s own fault for wanting to tag along. Angela loved driving and she especially loved driving fast. Michael was smart to not give her the keys to his car, because they’d be hitting the highway instead of searching for her friend.

“Let’s see, what else… She likes parties of any kind. Bonus points if she gets to dress up. Oh! And dancing! She LOVES it. Like, professional-level dancing, everything from ballroom waltz to badass music video choreography. Before her parents disappeared she was in an advanced class with Margrit and I’m pretty sure she could’ve entered competitions if the dork didn’t have such bad stage fright. I actually just last night convinced her to take classes again.”

“She likes music,” murmured Michael. He glanced down at the CD player. Angela had left it on the last CD, and Chris Martin was still softly crooning along as an undercurrent to their conversation. Michael cut it off and leaned across Angela to open the glove compartment in front of her. He pulled out a bright white MP3 player and placed it in Angela’s hand.

“Show me what kind of music she likes,” he told her.

And that was how they spent the rest of the drive. Michael stayed quiet while Angela had free reign of his iPod. There actually was quite a lot in his collection that Julian would have approved of; when they got through that, Angela helpfully took out her phone and started pulling up YouTube videos.

The music sharing continued even after they parked the car and started walking around the downtown strip. The library was a swing and a miss; Fleetwood Macchiato likewise came up empty, but Michael insisted on buying Angela a coffee to go while they were there. Michael got nothing for himself, though he did linger for a few minutes in the upstairs record shop before they headed back onto the street.

It was a brisk fall day, but the hot latte and her warmest scarf kept her nice and toasty. She kept up a steady stream of conversation as they walked down Main Street, barely noticing that Michael was mostly listening. Angela was just getting into the nitty-gritty of Julian’s love-hate relationship with Pitbull when Michael finally asked a question.

“What’s this place?”

He’d slowed to a halt under the awning outside a tiny little shopfront that was crammed between a hole-in-the-wall liquor store and an even bigger hole-in-the-wall deli market. The building was painted a deep blue, the large display window mostly obscured by its gauzy, starry curtains and the colorful crystal baubles dangling inside. Curling letters on the glass proclaimed the shop’s name.

Angela paused next to Michael, leaning around him to peer inside. She took a long sip of her coffee and tilted towards him.

“The Seventh Star,” she stage-whispered out of the side of her mouth. She waited a beat for effect. “They say a witch runs the place and if you ask the right questions she’ll sell you curses.”

She couldn’t even finish the sentence without cracking a smirk. With a roll of her eyes, she shrugged her shoulders and waved a hand dismissively.

“It’s just a bunch of New Age and bohemian stuff. Books, rocks, and shiny things like these.” Angela held out her arm and jangled her collection of bracelets. “Basically, it’s been here longer than Fleetwood, but not as long as the new library. No one has been able to come up with a better story than witch curses. You can’t go anywhere in Silent Pines without someone trying to tell you a bullshit urban legend about how their grandma was a Sasquatch princess and saved the town from ghost bears. Small towns are SO weird.”

“And you’re a skeptic,” Michael surmised, the corner of his mouth quirking up into a smile. “You don’t believe in anything without evidence, I’m guessing. Have you ever come face to face with something you couldn’t explain, Angela?”

“Julian,” she responded with a loud laugh. “But only because she has questionable taste in friends. Jury is still out on whether or not you’re just as bad as the rest of us. You knooow, if I were a guy trying to get to know a girl, I’d take her and her super hot friend somewhere fun. Maybe even invite my jerk cousin so he doesn’t crash the party. Totally not because the hot friend wants someone to play with if her bestie is suddenly busy.”

That wasn’t the most subtle of hints or invitations, but Angela Mercy was never one for being subtle. Julian was probably going to die of embarrassment when she found out, which kind of made it all the more fun. This was payback for making Angela bang her head on a table the other day.

“I think doing something as a group is a great idea. You said she likes dancing. I’m sure you know the local clubs better than I do, so I’ll take your recommendation.” He didn’t deny her accusation; in fact, he seemed to perk up at her suggestion. At least in relative terms. Michael wasn’t exactly the poster child for perky. “…Just the three of us, though.”

He turned his back on her, staring in through the glass front of the Seventh Star. His hand lifted as if to touch one of the hanging crystals, one that was shaped like a small sun with the rays curling and twisting all around it. A moment later he let his hand drop and looked over his shoulder at her, his dark eyes clouded.

“You don’t know Leo like I do,” he told her. “He’s my family. But he’s… trouble.”

“Trouble? Nooo. That sweet boy in the leather jacket who kidnaps girls from school and leaves cryptic texts? Couldn’t possibly be trouble.” If the sarcastic tone wasn’t enough, she punctuated it with a raise of her eyebrow and the quirk of her mouth.

Angela was getting a lot of mixed signals where it concerned Leo. Michael had some serious issues with his cousin, that much was clear. But he also kept going out of his way to reassure her that Leo wasn’t doing anything dangerous or creepy with Julian. The guy was just trying to annoy him, he said. Which led Angela to suspect their ongoing battle might be rooted in girl problems.

If Leo was toying around with Julian to antagonize his cousin, that boy’s nuts were going to get a swift introduction to Angela’s favorite sparkling heels.

“…Okay, no douchebag cousin! Keep the cute girls all to yourself.” That teasing look was back, at least for as long as it took for her to juggle her coffee and dig her phone back out of her ridiculously huge purse. She swiped her thumb across the screen as she did a little quick browsing. “There’s this badass club in Merrywood called Envy that’s supposed to have the best live bands, and all you need to get in is a halfway-convincing fake I.D.”

She gave Michael a quick once-over. Yeah, Mister Flawless did not seem like the type for sneaking into sketchy clubs. Angela’s smirk broadened.

“Buuuut everyone’s been tweeting about the place being bad news ever since this one girl turned up missing, so… Here we go!” Angela held out her phone so he could see the picture and Google Maps address she’d pulled up. “Clarity is here in town. Not as cool as driving out to Merrywood, but the minimum age is sixteen. We wouldn’t have to sneak in and I can always hit on the DJ if you and Julian want to be aloooone together.”

“That sounds perfect.” Michael flashed Angela a sincere smile, the tension in his face melting away. “Thank you.”

Aw, he didn’t look so rigid and stuffy when he actually smiled. No wonder Julian was besotted. Between that and the politesse, all he’d have to do now was dance with the girl and she’d probably fall in love. Damn it, Angela really hoped his cousin wasn’t as big of a dick as Michael claimed, because she wanted a boy to play with too!

He gave the New Age shop a final glance and sighed before he began to trudge down the street again, hands in his pockets. Angela skipped to join him.

“We can talk to Julian when we find her,” he said when she’d caught up. His mouth twisted into a wry grimace. “Whenever that is. I’m beginning to think we’ve gone in the wrong direction entirely. Are you sure they wouldn’t have gone to her house? Maybe we should check.”

“We might as well.” she agreed. “And if she’s not there, we can just wait. I know where she hides the spare key.”

Despite the tiny pang of jealousy, Angela was pretty thrilled to be involved with Julian’s first potential romantic rendezvous. It was going to be fun. If Angela had anything to say about it, absolutely nothing was going to come between Julian and her new maybe-boyfriend.

Michael and Julian would be locking lips by this time next week.

The entrance to the Silent Pines Cemetery was straight out of a hokey old horror movie. The rusted wrought-iron gates towered above even Leo’s head. Withered vines, brown with the first chill of autumn, climbed up the metal bars to obscure their ornate and twisting design. The gates were set into the crumbling granite that bordered the whole perimeter of the graveyard—but for the southernmost point of the wall, where a heavy tree branch had fallen and split the stone straight in two. The woods had begun to reclaim the site.

It was a lonely place. A place for forgotten things. Remnants from another time.

Few additions were made to the headstones anymore, as far as Julian knew. There was a newer, more modern plot on the opposite side of town… and most people these days were getting cremated. She could see why no one really came up here except for the tours with the Historical Society (or occasionally, teenagers on a dare). There wasn’t even a proper paved road leading to the cemetery, only a dirt trail scarcely wide enough for a car.

Leo parked the Mustang at the end of the trail.

“Here we go,” he said as they stepped out into the shade of the pines. He made his way over to the gates and untwisted a chain so decrepit that even Julian could likely have pulled it free easily. Maybe no one was worried about the security when the bars were set wide enough for someone Julian’s size to squeeze through. “This is going to be our classroom today. I hope you brought your thinking cap.”

He was still carrying what was left of his food. It was sort of a relief to see vampires still struggled with ordinary things like eating one-handed while driving. For her part, Julian was beginning to regret scarfing down her own lunch so quickly. If she’d known they were going to a graveyard she might not have ordered so much food. Her stomach felt like the Butterfly Blight of 1916 had come back to haunt her.

Her footsteps slowed as she reached the gate on Leo’s heels, the reality of her situation sinking in. She was in a cemetery with a vampire. This was crazy. Julian wasn’t even sure she believed that she was psychic. Not really. Why was she even trying to do this?

I always try to remember how delicate you are, Mr. Cragg’s words echoed in the back of her mind. Julian frowned, wrapping her fingers around two of the iron bars in front of her and squeezing tight.

And then another voice. We were avoiding spoiling your delicate maiden ears. Her gaze slid sideways to Leo. Julian wasn’t sure what to think of the guy. Last night he’d scared the hell out of her. Outside in the light of day, wearing his stupid sunglasses and chomping down on a cheeseburger, he didn’t seem so scary. She was more afraid of her math teacher.

There was something about those glasses…

“You’re sun sensitive,” she announced with certainty, squinting. “But you can still waltz around in the daylight? Is that one just a myth?”

“It’s not a myth,” he informed Julian between bites of food. “The sun is bad news. If I were new at this, I’d have gone up in flames the second I set foot outside. You can get out and about with age and practice, but even then there’s only so much direct sun you can take before you start getting the worst sunburn of your life. I have to stay indoors or in the shade as much as possible.”

There was plenty of shade here in the woods, which was probably why he took them off then and put them into the pocket of his jacket. …And he was giving her that look again. If Julian hadn’t known better she might think Leo was the psychic, because he could clearly tell she wasn’t thrilled about his choice of scenery for their practice session.

“Relax,” he told her, confirming her suspicions. “This is a nice, secluded area. We can chill out here and no one will bother us, and it’s safe. For you, anyway.”

Julian wasn’t so sure. Maybe the dead couldn’t hurt her, but every zombie movie she’d ever heard of was swimming through her head right now. If vampires were real, why not other kinds of undead?

Crumpling up the wrapper of his burger and stuffing it into his other pocket, he batted her hands away from the bars. Curling his own fingers around a particularly sharp-looking curlicue, he swung one winged gate inward and leaned back to rest against the iron lattices. The unkempt grass was crushed under the heels of his boots as he shifted his feet and quirked an eyebrow. There was a glint in his eyes that Julian wasn’t sure she much liked. “You know, you’re asking an awful lot of questions about vampires, but not the ones I’d expect.”

“I’m sorry, did you want me to ask whether you sparkle and if I should fear for my virginity?” Despite herself, she laughed and rolled her eyes skyward. “Or is this where I’m supposed to wonder if you sleep in a coffin and if so, which one of these mausoleums is your house?”

There was one question on Julian’s mind. She already knew the answer, but she dreaded it all the same.

“Are we actually going in there?” She struggled to keep the panic out of her voice. Any minute now something was going to come crawling up from beneath the faded stone pathways. “We’re seriously going to wander around in a graveyard?”

Leo burst into laughter. The jerk was practically doubling over, his shoulders shaking as he clung to the gate.

“Yes, we’re going in. Something stopping you?” And then, bizarrely, he actually nudged her foot with the tip of his toes. Like he was her asshole big brother picking on her, or something. “Come on, Jules. You’re already hanging out with a dead guy, what’s a few more?”

Leo received the dirtiest glare she could muster. Julian stomped right past him through the gate, shoving her fears deep down. She folded her arms and tapped fidgety fingers against her jacket sleeves.

After a few solid steps, the stiffness melted out of her. Nothing was happening. It really was just a graveyard and its only occupants were a so-called psychic and an asshole vampire. Julian spun around, mentally beaming some choice swear words in his direction and secretly hoping he could hear her. If telepathy was part of her psychic repertoire, Julian would be an expert by the end of the day.

Her would-be-tutor didn’t seem to notice.

“Anyway,” Leo went on, rekindling their earlier conversation, “While I’m just thrilled to discover that you’re saving yourself for Mikey, I’m actually more interested that you don’t seem to care that we’re blood-sucking monsters. The usual FAQs are in the general ballpark of morality and the metaphysical. ‘Are you evil?’ ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ ‘Do you have souls?’ That kind of garbage.”

“I answered most of those questions on my own. I’m not being kidnapped, coerced, or threatened. Plenty of humans are serial killers. I very clearly remember you, on the other hand, saying ‘no need to kill’. You’re not a monster, you’re just an ASSHOLE. We’ve already established that.” Julian would have glared at him if she weren’t so focused on watching where she placed her feet. She still wasn’t entirely over the idea that she might be stepping on bodies. Occasionally she’d find herself circumventing patches of grass that didn’t even have a marker, feeling especially silly but unable to bring herself to step there all the same.

Leo didn’t have that problem. He moved with an easy, effortless sort of confidence. His long legs carried him right past her as he picked his way through the field of mismatched headstones: granite crosses, statues of angels, and carved tombstones in the shape of archways. Many of the graves dated back to at least the turn of the century and some of the markers were falling to bits with age. Leo hopped over a cracked stone face and turned around to walk backwards, raising an eyebrow at Julian.

“For the record,” he said. “I sleep in a bed like everyone else. And if I were bringing a girl back to my place, it sure wouldn’t be the chick who writes ‘Mrs. Michael Hightower’ in her diary.”

Somehow Leo managed to find one more horrifying thing to drive another nail into HER coffin. It didn’t matter if he’d seen the doodles in her favorite notebook or it was just a lucky guess. This was the WORST. Pretending that she couldn’t feel the tinge of crimson in her cheeks, Julian balled up her fists and hurried to catch up to him.

“…I’m not stupid, you know,” she sulked. A more somber expression overtook her a moment later. “And I do know you probably have killed someone before. I’m not ready to deal with that yet.”

Julian wasn’t only talking about Leo. She might have been crushing hard, but common sense still told her that Leo and Michael must have been around a while. Vampires needed blood to survive. She wanted to believe that they weren’t bad people… but that didn’t mean they’d never done bad things.

“If you want my help, tell me your life is filled with unicorns and rainbows so I don’t feel like a dumbass for practicing mind powers with a vampire in an empty graveyard. Okay?” she begged.

Leo stopped dead in his tracks so suddenly that she almost ran into him.

“You’ve had a pretty easy life, haven’t you?” he asked casually, conversationally, tilting his head to one side and looking her up and down. He propped an elbow on one of the graves and rested his weight there. When Julian opened her mouth to retort, he rolled his eyes and made a halting gesture.

“Yeah, I know, missing parents. Classically tragic teen heroine backstory. But you’ve never had anything really bad happen, Jules, have you? Nothing you couldn’t bounce back from. Small town girl, good family, old money. Close friends. Probably the same friends since cartoon characters were a mandatory part of your wardrobe, am I right?”

Taking a single step closer, he held out his open hand to Julian and wiggled his fingers. “Life isn’t rainbows and unicorns, though. That’s the truth. If you don’t like that, don’t give me your hand. You can run along home and forget this whole thing now.

“So what’s it going to be? Do you trust me?”

His palm lay flat, supine and waiting.

“Are you serious?” she asked. She almost slapped his hand away right then and there. Leo didn’t know her or what her life was like. There was a lot more to Julian than missing parents and an ill-advised crush. He didn’t know the things she’d see when she tried to sleep. He didn’t know what it felt like to realize all your nightmares could be real.

Julian was going to die. If she really was psychic, that was one thing she knew for certain. It didn’t matter if she turned around and ran back home now; Pandora’s box was already open. Michael and Leo could walk out of her life and she’d still end up staring death in the face.

“Wouldn’t it have been nice to at least pretend just for a little while that things weren’t going to hell?” she asked, sighing in exasperation. Screw it. At least Leo’s offer was a choice. Julian had far too few of those lately.

“Don’t make me regret this.” When she grabbed his hand, she wasn’t at all surprised to get that same zing of heat. Maybe they were both in hell already.

Julian might as well be trusting the devil.

Leo smiled broadly at Julian in that brief moment, his uncomfortably blue eyes locking with hers. In retrospect, she probably should have known then. She felt a hand on her waist. Suddenly the ground was very definitely not under her feet where it belonged.

The world went first blurry and then nearly pitch black. Julian was plummeting backward with nothing to slow her fall, the light overhead getting further and further away as if the darkness was trying to swallow her whole… until she hit the dirt, literally, and came to an abrupt stop.

“Seriously? How many times did you watch Aladdin as a kid, Jules? First part of the lesson: Don’t trust vampires,” Leo’s voice rang out overhead. There was a faint echo as the sound bounced against solid rock. When Julian looked up, she could see a shadow moving across the square of light above her.

Rrrrrgh!!” she growled in answer, snarling and kicking her feet. What must have been a rock went clattering away into the dark. As she scrabbled into an upright position, loose dirt slipped between her fingers.

Now that everything wasn’t happening so fast, she had a chance to assess her surroundings. The lighting was abysmal, but she could see a rectangle of grey stone flooring where the light was filtering down. It looked like the same kind of stone used for the cemetery walls. Nearby she could just barely make out the square silhouettes of two very large tombs.

Oh god. Oh god, he’d dropped her into the crypts. This had to be part of a mausoleum. There were dead bodies all over the place down here and not all of them were lucky enough to get nice stone boxes to sleep in. It smelled earthy and musty, like the place had been sealed up for a very long time and had only been disturbed recently. …Which meant all kinds of corpses in varying levels of rot could be strewn around and MAD about it.

The reason Julian hadn’t cracked open her skull was that she’d landed soundly atop what seemed like a truckload of dirt. Furiously, she slapped it from her clothes as she rolled and clambered up onto her feet, muttering some choice words under her breath.

She was beginning to get an idea of how Leo might have gotten covered in so much dirt the night before.

“Lesson part two.” Maybe it was just the acoustics down there, but he sounded a lot closer this time. “Thinking on your feet. What now?

“What now?! I’d punch you in your vampire teeth if I weren’t afraid you’d bite my hand off!” she shouted. “I don’t know what now. You can’t just drop me in a pit of angry dead people and expect me to figure it out!”

Julian needed to breathe. With her eyes adjusting to the dim light, she could see a little more. Still no walls, but she could get some sense of depth and shadow. And no dead bodies. That was the important part. If she saw a dead body, she was DONE.

She couldn’t see that jerkass either, though, and she really needed to be aware of him right now. Julian inched away from her tiny square of light, squinting into the darkness. Luckily being pissed off was a really good motivation.

“Did you even have a lesson plan, or did you just want to dump me in a hole to be a dick?”

“Oh, I have a plan,” the disembodied voice replied from a little ways to her right. Before she could take another step, he was speaking from the opposite side. “Think. There’s no way you can get back up the way you came. You don’t have a light. I stole your cell phone, so don’t bother checking for it. How are you going to get out?”

Stop it,” she hissed. “You’re not going to hurt me.” Despite his words, she felt in her pockets and swore again when they turned out as empty as he’d promised. The flashlight app would’ve been a godsend, of course, but Julian quickly realized there was a bigger problem. She’d forgotten to text Angela about her change of plans. If something happened down here, no one would know where she was.

There was a scraping noise behind her, but by the time she spun towards the sound he was gone. Probably. It was still too dark for her to be sure.

“Sorry Jules, you’re stuck down here with me,” Leo was saying. His words echoed through the crypt, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly where he was. “You so sure I’m not going to hurt you? Maybe… I don’t really think you can find Tasha and Colby. Maybe… I don’t care that Michael thinks you’re precious.”

A sliver of doubt nagged at her. Julian didn’t know Leo any better than he knew her. He might actually be a sadistic bloodthirsty douchebag. Her gut said you can trust him and she was naive enough to believe it and run off with him, no questions asked. Now she was going to die alone in the dark. What if this was what her dream had been warning her about?

“Michael thinks I’m precious?” she asked, cringing at how shaky she sounded. She stumbled over a pile of pebbles and scooped to pick some up. The jagged edges dug into her fingers as she squeezed them tight.

“Really? That’s what you’re thinking about right now?” Leo demanded. There was a distinct satisfaction in knowing she’d managed to irk him, though her triumph was short-lived. “Yes, Hollinger, he thinks you’re precious. Fuck, I forgot what teenagers are like. Hormones are way more intense than your survival instincts.”

Again she heard a scraping noise, like nails on a chalkboard. It was closer this time. She shivered, rubbing her free hand along her arm to stave off the chill of goosebumps. Julian didn’t even want to know how he was making that sound. With his own nails against the stone? With some poor dead person’s bones?

Trying to swallow around the panic digging its claws into her throat, Julian shuffled carefully backward until her searching fingers found cold stone. She squeezed her eyes shut and strained to listen over the erratic pounding of her heartbeat. When Leo wasn’t taunting her, the silence practically roared. Something tickled the back of her neck and Julian let out a quiet squeak as she hopped away from the wall, shaking out her hair to dislodge loose cobwebs and what she hoped wasn’t ten billion spiders.

Wait. It wasn’t a wall. She’d backed into one of the tombs. Julian was quick to heft herself up onto the block of granite and stand, knees as wobbly as a baby deer’s, atop her new vantage point. Maybe it was just a placebo effect now that she wasn’t on the ground, but it did give her a better feel for the place. Her eyes made a useless attempt to track Leo’s voice as he started to speak again.

“Come on, Jules, focus. Forget about what’s going on out there. Right now, you’re in here. And I’ve gotta tell you, I’m not seeing much in the way of common sense from you so far. What’s getting on higher ground going to do for you if you can’t see?”

Obviously he didn’t have the same problem.

“It’s going to give me a better chance to leap at you and strangle you to death, for one!” she yelled, now sounding a little less shaky and a lot more pissed off. Common sense? As far as Julian could tell she was behaving like any normal person would under disturbing circumstances. Apparently, searching for anything to stop yourself from being terrified out of your mind wasn’t common sense to an asshole vampire.

“Fine, I’m focusing!” Winding up one of her rocks, she chucked it hard across the mausoleum when she heard another scratch. She heard it strike stone, and that only made her madder. “Focusing on making your brain explode! Or how about you bursting into flames? That would be nice!”

His whole aura already felt like sizzle and hellfire. Somehow it was easy zeroing in on that and hoping he’d ignite. When she didn’t get her wish, she reared back with another rock. It clattered in the distance, and Julian scowled.

“How is this supposed to be REMOTELY useful for psychic teaching, anyway?!”

“Which part? Forcing you to use the senses you usually ignore? Or making you tap into all those emotions welling up in your little maiden heart? Do you even realize you’re using them right now?” he asked flatly. Maiden heart? She sent another rock peeling through the air. “Good one. Just a little too slow. You’re getting warmer.”

The lid that she was standing on rattled and slid around like a funhouse floor under her shoes, a sharp reminder that the stone coffins were boxes. Julian teetered, a few of her pebbles slipping from her grasp as she flailed to stay upright. There was a light touch on her back just long enough to help her keep her footing and then it was gone.

“Come on, Jules. Hit me,” Leo taunted. “Don’t make me do the obvious ‘you throw like a girl’ joke. I don’t want to lower myself like that.”

“Right, because you could get any lower today! Why couldn’t you just say, ‘Hey JULIAN’,” she stressed her first name, flinging another stone towards a corner. “What kind of things CAN you do? How about we give those a shot!”

Julian hopped down from her perch, not interested in another spin. What she needed was a better weapon. A game of stake-the-vampire was starting to sound like a really good idea. But all she could find were rocks in varying sizes, scattered across the mausoleum floor. She’d have to settle for cracking his skull open.

“Instead you decide to dump me in a dark hole and chase me around until I go freaking BALLISTIC and start sobbing in a corner! ‘Cause, you know, THAT’S totally the way to go. Toss the baby in the lake and see if she figures out how to SWIM.” Her next throw was especially hard. Julian hoped her missile would pop him right between the eyes, but unfortunately it struck the wall like all the rest. She heard it distinctly in the brief moment where Leo wasn’t running his mouth.

“How many times do I have to go over this with you? I’m not nice. I’m not your friend. I don’t care if you’re happy about this.” He laughed, low but somehow penetrating, like the sound was rattling around and around in her bones. It was weird that his laughter could be so warm when his words were so cold. “But even if I did? You’re not sobbing. You’re yelling and doing your best to stone me to death. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t think you had it in you. What the hell happened to you, Jules? Why does it take dumping you in a lake to see you try to keep afloat?”

And then he was right behind her, his hand gripping her shoulder just tight enough to let her know he was there.

“Gotcha, Jules. Think fast.”

It was some kind of miracle that Julian didn’t shriek or jump out of her skin. Only a soft, muffled grunt escaped her lips as she slipped out of his grip and spun around so quickly that she might’ve backhanded him had she not stumbled. She crashed into one of the tombs, hands gripping the stone edges to steady herself.

What happened to her? What kind of question was that? What was the point of any of this? Julian was beginning to doubt Leo even wanted to help Michael or find their friends.

We’re not friends. I’m not your friend.

The words were ringing in her ears, muddled and dizzying. At first Julian thought maybe she’d burst a blood vessel. When a sudden overwhelming dread washed over her, one of her panic attacks seemed more likely. But it kept pouring in, stronger and stronger, until—

This door was supposed to be shut. Her fingers traced the recesses of the cleverly-disguised panel in the stone, her mouth tugging into a small frown. She hadn’t ever seen it disturbed until now.

“I’ve told you,” a man’s voice croaked, breaking the silence and stillness of the crypt. She scurried for the cover of a great stone tomb and ducked down out of sight. A few stray strands of brown hair slipped free of her coif, tickling her cheek as she held her breath and listened. “You have to stop coming here.”

At first she thought he was addressing her and a chill crawled straight down her spine at the thought. But then his companion replied in a cool, smooth voice that troubled her even more.

She listened to their conversation, but the words didn’t seem to stick in her head. She couldn’t focus. The world faded in and out of pitch black. Footsteps rang out across the stone floor, drawing nearer to her hiding spot. Trembling, she clamped a hand tight over her mouth. In the end they passed her by.

It was only when the conversation lulled that everything popped back into clarity. There was a long stretch of silence—so long that she found herself scooting across the floor and peering around the corner of the tomb. She could just barely make out two figures in the gloom. They were scarcely ten feet away, but for some reason she could not find the strength to draw back again.

“We’re not friends,” the voice was so cold. Dangerous. His back remained turned to the light of the torch on the wall, keeping his face shadow-cast. “Your attempts to ride my coattails do not a friendship make. And every word from your lips reminds me why your family fell from grace to begin with.”


“Do you truly mean to lecture me on meddling outside of our bylaws?” The impossibly tall man’s hand shot out to close around the other’s throat, eliciting a strangled gasp. “How very droll. If you can’t hold your peace, I’m happy to hold it for you.”


It dawned on her, then, that he wasn’t letting go. She was watching the life wrung out of the other man, could see the haze of death spreading across his bulging eyes in the dim torchlight. There was a high-pitched sound growing steadily louder until it split her ears, and it took far too long for her to realize that the sound was her own shrill shriek of horror.

The realization came too late.

As one man fell gasping and twitching to the dusty floor, the other turned his head in her direction.

“You,” he said, matter-of-fact. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she could feel them boring into her like twin needles. “You’re Jonah’s girl.”

She tried to suck in a breath—she wasn’t certain why, whether it was to scream anew or to stammer out some form of reply—but it lodged in her throat. Again, she made a futile attempt to fill her lungs that ended in a pathetic wheeze. Her chest was on fire. She toppled over onto the floor of the crypt, clawing a hand at her throat and seizing. With every rattling breath, her vision doubled into layers upon layers of images. They jumbled together, out of order and meaningless.

Knife. Stars. Earth, and stone.

When the world shifted back into the dim light of the crypt, Julian was very aware of being herself again. But all the feelings from the other girl still lingered. Her chest throbbed, still so painful that it was hard to breathe. She pressed her hand to her heart and looked down, and for a moment she could swear there were bloodstains down the front of her shirt.

That hadn’t been part of that… whatever that was, had it? At the end there everything had become so confused that it was impossible to tell. That had been so different from her dreams. Clear, vivid, physical. Her dreams might’ve felt equally real in the moment, but that would fade quickly once she woke up. This was new and foreign, emotion and images belonging to a completely different person mixing themselves up with her own. The urge to run out of there screaming or just burst into tears was overwhelmingly strong.

With a strangled whimper, Julian felt her knees give out.

“Aw, shit,” a more familiar voice swore. A pair of very solid and very warm arms stopped Julian from taking that nosedive.

For a fleeting moment they stood there in an awkward silence, her face smushed firmly against Leo’s chest. As Julian gasped for air, she got a lungful of laundry detergent and leather. Then her rescuer eased them slowly down to kneel on the stone floor. Only when they were both steady on their knees did he push Julian away and hold her at arm’s length.

“You just had to go and be an overachiever, didn’t you? I’m not giving you extra credit,” he muttered. Julian tried to focus on his face, or at least the faint outline of his features and the hint of sky-blue irises that were actually visible in the dim light. Her skin felt prickly and ice cold all over except for where he gripped her arms. “Jules. You with me? It’s okay. Whatever you’re seeing or feeling, it can’t hurt you, you hear me? Talk to me.”

It was the first time Leo had ever sounded remotely concerned about, well, anything. It was pretty funny considering he’d just been telling Julian how little he cared. If she weren’t still having difficulty breathing, she’d have laughed.

The chill was starting to fade as she wrenched herself bit by bit away from sensations that didn’t belong to her. A thousand different thoughts were flitting around in her head. The only thing that was stopping her from taking off was a lingering desire to spite Leo. …And his hold on her, probably.

Julian gave her fingers an experimental wiggle and let out a rush of breath.

“I know the way out now,” she mumbled, and was surprised to hear herself sound so calm.

“…Come on, then,” he told her in an equally even tone. “Show me. If you can stand up by yourself.”

It was still hard to see his face in the dark, but he was definitely watching her as he slowly relaxed his death grip and sat back. His hands didn’t quite retreat, hovering on standby as if he were certain she would topple over again any second now. Probably a good thing, because she wavered once he let her go.

“Or you could faint like a teenage girl. Oh, wait…” Was he still trying to piss her off? So much for his change in tune.

“I’m not going to faint.” Julian lifted her hands, debating whether to just shove him. Instead she braced them against Leo’s shoulders and leveraged herself back up to her feet. As soon as she was stable she snatched her hands back and clutched her fingers to her still-aching chest.

“That was weird.” The whispered phrase didn’t even begin to capture the mess in her head. Leo earned another sour frown, but she was looking through him more than at him. Stretching her arms out to either side like she was trying to keep her balance, Julian turned slowly on her heel and started walking. She couldn’t see where she was going and now and then she’d teeter dangerously to one side, but she knew she was there when she reached out and pressed her hand against one of the stone walls.

“…There should be a door here.” Julian cast a look over her shoulder, her eyes wide and bewildered. “I am really, indescribably pissed at you.”

“Good.” He reached past her to push at a spot just beside where she’d laid her hand, and what looked like solid stone gave way with a burst of icy air and an awful scraping sound. “I figure we can both live with that. Probably better to hold off the yelling until we’re topside, though, okay? Less chance of accidental cave-ins. No one’s used this tunnel in a while.”

The passageway was darker still than the buried crypt. Beyond the door it was only packed dirt making up the walls and floor, clearly dug out rather than built. Cave-ins were probably a legitimate concern. Julian cautiously picked her way along, feeling along the walls of the tunnel by hand. Leo followed her like a shadow. He was quiet like a shadow too, sometimes so much that she couldn’t be sure he was actually behind her. But when she turned around, there he was—all six feet of annoying vampire.

They rounded a corner and the earth beneath their feet hit a steep incline. Julian could see light up ahead, bright enough to sting her eyes after being stuck underground so long. She squinted and blinked against the sun, hiking up the slope only to come face-to-face with a wrought-iron door. It had the same pattern as the cemetery gates, and without the vines in the way, she could see that the little twisted shapes were iron trees.

“Come on.” Leo nudged the heel of his hand into the small of her back. “We’ll get out of here and I’ll take you home. I’m pretty sure that was way more than enough for today.”

The ride back was silent. Julian was thankful for that. Maybe Leo understood that this was a lot to process, or maybe he was warned off by her downright murderous expression. She sat in the passenger seat with her arms crossed, staring with unseeing eyes out the window, her fingers gripping so hard at the sleeves of her jacket that her knuckles were white. Today she had learned a lesson, alright. She sure as hell wouldn’t trust Leo ever again.

But the crazy thing about his plan was it had worked, hadn’t it?

Somewhere in the middle of all her frenzied panic and slinging rocks, something flipped on inside her. Julian hadn’t meant to do anything. But it happened. That was a vision. An actual waking vision, an impossible thing that she could do. And despite the scared little voice in the back of her mind screaming that she should stop now and forget the whole thing, a stronger part of her was wondering: Why couldn’t I do this before? How did I not know that I could?

If Julian could find a door, she could find their friends. If she could find their friends, there was nothing stopping her from finding her mom and dad too. Now all she needed was to learn to do it at will.

When they turned down her street and she glimpsed the terracotta roof of her house through the trees, Julian shifted in her seat to pin Leo with another wide-eyed stare.

“We’re going to do it again,” she announced. “But not around a bunch of dead bodies, and you’re not going to be a dick about it.”

“Sure. No dead bodies except my own, got it.” He raised his eyebrows at her as he glanced over, then back at the road ahead. “Believe it or not, I’m not doing this just to get my kicks from picking on you. But I’m not going to treat you like a china doll, either. You’re clearly not one, despite what the general consensus seems to be. If you can sass someone who’s implying they’re going to eat you, you sure as hell can—”

He stopped talking abruptly. A muscle twitched in his jaw, and the halfway friendly expression he’d been wearing withered and died. Now he was the one whose knuckles were turning white as they gripped the wheel.

Julian followed his cold blue eyes to her front porch.

Michael and Angela were sitting there waiting on the steps. They both hopped to their feet as Leo pulled up to the curb and threw the car into park.

“Forget it,” said Leo. He reached across Julian and shoved her door open. Her cell phone was pushed into her hand a moment later. Julian had almost forgotten that he’d said he took it. “Get out.”

For a second they’d almost been on the same page, but then this happened. Julian didn’t understand Leo’s animosity towards Michael and she was starting to suspect it might’ve been more serious than she first assumed. Before she could open her mouth to ask what exactly his problem was, Angela shouted her name across the yard.

Crap, what was Angela even doing there with Michael? Did she really need to bring in reinforcements just because Julian had skipped a little school?

When Julian turned on her phone and the message count went up and up and up… she knew she was in trouble. She climbed out of the car and met Angela halfway down the driveway. The nearer Julian got, the higher Angela’s eyebrows climbed. Julian followed her gaze downward and grimaced when she saw why her friend no longer looked so relieved. Double crap. She looked like she’d been rolling around in piles of dirt. Patches and smudges were all over her clothes, and when Julian reached up to touch her hair she got another handful of cobwebs. Squealing, she shook out her fingers.

“Did he kidnap you?” Angela asked outright.


“Did. He. Kidnap. You.”

“Of course not!” Oh Jesus. Julian could only imagine what kind of scenarios the girl had been dreaming up. Angela really had no idea what Julian was getting into, and she couldn’t even tell her. Plus these two had probably been feeding into each other’s fears. Based on his closed-off face and the tension emanating off of him while he hovered behind them on the porch, Michael definitely had some scarier ideas about where she’d disappeared to.

“I’m okay,” Julian stressed. “A few hurt feelings and wounded pride, maybe. We were just… doing stuff.”

“‘Doing stuff,'” Angela repeated, unimpressed. “How about somebody explains what that stuff is before I start swinging this purse around?”

“You’re sure you’re alright?” Michael cut in, circling around Angela and holding up a preemptive hand to block any purse-swinging. His eyes scanned Julian’s face and his lips pursed… but from the way his shoulders relaxed, it seemed his worst fears had been allayed.

“Let me guess,” he said. “He took you to the graveyard for a history lesson. This is exactly what I mean when I said he doesn’t think things through. Julian, I’m sorry. I’ll have a word with him.”

Briefly, his fingers brushed Julian’s shoulder as he stalked past her towards the Mustang.

“Nothing bad happened!” Julian muttered, a bit too late. She watched him lean down to talk to his cousin through the open window. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he didn’t sound too pleased. Part of her wanted to dash across the yard to make sure Michael wasn’t cursing out his cousin in her honor. Which was just… annoying. Leo deserved to get kicked in the face. But now that she wasn’t getting chased around in the dark his behavior didn’t seem quite as bad.

She gave Leo and the car one last fleeting glance over her shoulder. This wasn’t the end of their conversation, no matter what he thought.

When she turned back around, she quailed under Angela’s affronted glare.

“You have a thousand things to start explaining, young lady.” The taller girl was having a hard time keeping the amusement out of her voice, even if she did have that perfect disapproving stare down. Angela grabbed the sleeve of Julian’s jacket between two fingers and hauled her toward the front porch.

Julian gave an exasperated sigh, tugging her arm free the moment they reached the first step.

“I’m helping with something,” she attempted to explain without giving too much away. “Something I can’t tell you about, but I would if I could. It’s not as bad as it looks, but it’s… It’s weird.”

In turn, Angela rested her hands on her hips and gave Julian a dubious once-over.

“You know how much I love secrets, Julian. And how absolutely terrible you are at keeping them.”

Oh hell. Julian forgot the word secret was basically a challenge where Angela was concerned. Her regret must’ve shown on her face because Angela was suddenly grinning her wide Cheshire grin.

Yeah, Julian was in trouble for sure.

“What did you do?” was how Michael greeted his cousin.

As if he hadn’t heard, Leo reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pair of sunglasses that Michael hadn’t seen since the 80’s. He hadn’t known Leo even still owned the stupid things. He waited with all the patience he could muster as Leo slipped them on—more slowly than was necessary, he was certain—and only then turned to look at Michael.

“Relax, Mike. She’s fine. An A-plus student, actually.” A smirk tugged at his lips. “Aren’t you proud?”

Michael flexed his fingers where they rested on the edge of the open window. The car’s engine was still running, the metal vibrating under his hands. For a moment he let his eyes linger on the empty seat beside Leo, where Julian had so recently been sitting. The girl had been in such a hurry to get out that she hadn’t even bothered to close her door. Michael’s mouth pressed into a tight, thin line as he chose his next words.

“Fine?” he echoed. “Leo, she’s white as a sheet.”

“She’s spooked, that’s all. Things got a little too intense for your precious princess. Buuuut for the record, that girl—” He pointed past Michael. “—definitely got a vision back there. I think we’re in business.”

Michael frowned, momentarily thrown by the change of subject. He wanted to press Leo for details on how Julian became “spooked”, but… in the end, he took the bait.

“A vision? What did she see?”

“Dunno. I didn’t ask.” Leo shrugged. “Maybe you two can talk about it in between the wedding plans. Have you found a caterer yet? I might have an in at the blood bank.”

That was officially the limit for the day. Michael wasn’t going to put up with this.

“That’s it,” he told Leo. “You’ve done enough damage here. I should have known better than to think you’d want to help. I thought you cared about Tasha and Colby, but that’s not what you’re after, is it?”

“Fuck you, Michael,” hissed Leo, his smug look evaporating. “You have no right—”

“Go home.” That tone brooked no argument. Michael leaned closer, undeterred by those shades. He knew that Leo was meeting his eye. After a long moment, he straightened up and loosened his hold on the car. “I may not be an expert, but I think I’ll be a better help to Julian than you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Leo reached over and yanked the passenger-side door shut. “I hope you’re happy.”

Michael opened his mouth, but Leo was already speeding away. He stepped back just in time to avoid a tire rolling over his foot.

“Not particularly,” he answered anyway, putting his hands in his jeans pockets and watching the Mustang’s bumper disappear into the distance.



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Envy is the most popular adult nightspot in town (quite possibly because it’s one of the few places that stays open as late as 3 AM). Lately Envy has been coming under fire for questionable business practices, a poor carding process, and a few frightening rumors.

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Merrywood Community College is the first choice for many of the city’s youth as well as those from Silent Pines and Elder Ridge.

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Out of Town

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About half an hour’s drive from the outskirts of Silent Pines, Merrywood is one of the town’s closest neighbors. Technically a city, it’s more like a larger town—but it makes up the bulk of the area’s urban sprawl. Merrywood is a popular nightlife spot for locals from Silent Pines and Elder Ridge, as well as home to the nearest community college.

[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column_inner][et_pb_column_inner type=”1_2″ saved_specialty_column_type=”3_4″][et_pb_image admin_label=”Image” src=”” show_in_lightbox=”off” url_new_window=”off” use_overlay=”off” animation=”left” sticky=”off” align=”left” force_fullwidth=”off” always_center_on_mobile=”on” use_border_color=”off” border_color=”#ffffff” border_style=”solid” /][et_pb_text admin_label=”Elder Ridge” background_layout=”light” text_orientation=”justified” text_font=”Open Sans Condensed||||” text_font_size=”20″ use_border_color=”off” border_color=”#ffffff” border_style=”solid”]

The next town over from Silent Pines, Elder Ridge is almost as small and almost as old.

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[et_pb_section bb_built=”1″ fullwidth=”off” specialty=”on” transparent_background=”off” background_color=”#000000″ allow_player_pause=”off” inner_shadow=”off” parallax=”off” parallax_method=”on” make_fullwidth=”off” use_custom_width=”off” width_unit=”on” make_equal=”off” use_custom_gutter=”off” parallax_1=”off” parallax_method_1=”off” parallax_2=”off” parallax_method_2=”off”][et_pb_column type=”3_4″ specialty_columns=”3″][et_pb_row_inner admin_label=”Row”][et_pb_column_inner type=”1_2″ saved_specialty_column_type=”3_4″][et_pb_blurb admin_label=”Julian” title=”Julian Michelle Hollinger” url_new_window=”off” use_icon=”off” icon_color=”#b6aabe” use_circle=”off” circle_color=”#b6aabe” use_circle_border=”off” circle_border_color=”#b6aabe” image=”” icon_placement=”top” animation=”top” background_layout=”light” text_orientation=”center” use_icon_font_size=”off” use_border_color=”off” border_color=”#ffffff” border_style=”solid” url=””]

Born July 18th, 1998

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Julian lives alone with her cat and it’s not at all sad and absolutely nothing creepy is happening in that old house.

Her parents have been missing for a year. Their jeep was found empty at the side of the road, almost at the edge of town. They are presumed dead by the local authorities.

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Hollinger House was built circa 1843 after a Hollinger son had a violent falling out with the family patriarch. Over time as other branches of the family tree faded out, it became the last Hollinger residence in Silent Pines. It boasts five bedrooms (including a full master suite), three baths, a modern kitchen, and a separate two-car garage. The current owners are Jeremy Hollinger (accountant at M&B Accounting) and Sandra Hollinger (Treasurer of the Silent Pines Historical Society), but they’ve been missing since October of 2013. The legal heir to the property is their only child Julian; she’ll inherit if they don’t turn up within the next six years.

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Lexi’s Family and Friends

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Lexi works for her dad at the family gas station.

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Lexi’s not sure how to talk to her estranged mother.


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Knucker is Lexi’s best (and only) friend.